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Improving The Adoption of Agile

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We should use an agile approach to adopt agile instead of adopting agile in a waterfall way, and have leaders who are willing to empower their teams and build an organization that supports them, argued Dave West, CEO and chief product owner at The industry needs more practices on incrementally rolling agility out.

InfoQ interviewed West about the adoption of agile and applying Scrum Studio, what the industry can do to increase the understanding of agile approaches and what the industry should stop doing, and what the future will bring for agile.

InfoQ: What’s your view on the adoption of agile?

Dave West: Surveys may say that the majority of projects/products are agile, but that data is not the complete picture. Agile is being adopted, but for many it is a mechanical following of agile practices in a waterfall way. Sprints are really just chunks of a waterfall plan. Daily Scrums are status report meetings. Product owners are really order takers, not order makers and software is still batched up into an infrequent release schedule.

Changing the environment in which agile teams work has been slow, thus any agile adoption is undermined by the existing culture and norms of an organization. But things are changing. Some of this is encouraged by changes to technology such Continuous Delivery, PaaS, Infrastructure as code and other empowering technologies. Other change is being enabled by better understanding of what Scrum and agile approaches are - Think of this as growing up agile. Future agile teams will not just be ticking the box, but will "be" agile.

InfoQ: How does an agile culture differ from the "traditional" culture found in IT companies?

West: That could require a whole separate interview :-) But if I was going to focus on the big differences it would be:

  1. Hierarchies are inverted - you are not serving your boss; they are serving you in pursuit of the customer/value.
  2. There is a focus on outcomes and learning rather than motion and risk.
  3. Planning accepts there will be surprises and plans accordingly.
  4. Everything is based on frequently delivering stuff. That means breaking things down into small chunks that can be measured.
  5. Teams are self-directing and self-organizing.
  6. Trust the process is replaced with trust the team.

I guess all of this stems from the basic concepts of empiricism and lean thinking. Those two ideas seem simple and not a big change, but they seem to change everything.

A Dutch pension and investment management company shared their experiences from using agile principles with Scrum Studio. They established an independent part in their organization that has end-to-end responsibility for delivering business value to customers:

Our Studio currently has three teams, consisting of product managers, online marketers, content creators, online editors, community managers, digital architects and technical specialists. Each team is responsible to set their own targets, but also link them to the targets of the other teams and the studio as a whole.

We use Scrum, with the roles of scrum master and product owner, but the product owner responsibility is partly delegated to team members based on expertise. And we iteratively develop, deploy and test MVP’s, like a new hypothecary product or our new app, and gather all kinds of feedback and measurable data to support further decisions.

InfoQ: Different approaches exist for changing the culture and adopting agile, one of them is Scrum Studio. What is it, and how does it work?

West: It is really hard to adopt Scrum within a traditional organization. Imagine you trying to deliver working software frequently, plan regularly and even build a self organized team when your company is built around working on a task plan, delivering infrequently to remove risk and trying to avoid planning because it is so painful. Imagine doing Scrum within an organization that has lost the trust of its customer. Well, that is where many Scrum teams exist. And these Scrum teams survive in spite of the environment around them.

What Scrum Studio introduces is a fundamental break from that approach. Instead of trying to reshape Scrum to support an organization that was not built to solve complex problems, create a new organization that is built for Scrum. This is very similar to the ideas that John Kotter has talked about in his recent work on enterprise change and can be found in his book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster Moving World.

It works on three levels:

  1. It provides the practical stuff for agility to flourish. This will include things like technical infrastructure, training, etc.
  2. It will demonstrate the level of commitment that the organization has for this change. This will not only require some budget, but more importantly time of the execs.
  3. It will, at least initially, include the problems and people who fit the agile approach.

We are increasingly seeing something like Scrum Studios appear in the area of digital. These Scrum studios are based on Scrum but also combine much of the thinking of Design Thinking (who is the customer and what do they want), Lean Startup (can we solve their problem and then scale it) and agile delivery.

What we see with these Digital / Scrum Studio is the rest of the organization slowly changes to support them. We start see Finance, HR and other business functions adapt to better serve these customer centric, agile enterprises. It is ironic that many of these studios are driven by the business, as they try and become more competitive and one of their biggest challenges is the existing IT organization. Maybe by adopting Scrum it can help build a coalition between these groups and make agile not just a IT thing, but instead a business initiative.

InfoQ: What can the industry do to increase the understanding of agile approaches?

West: We have been trying for the last 22 years to drive home the story about Scrum. But still today we get the "well, Scrum is just about development" and "we do Scrum because we meet once a day and do a StandUp". But we are seeing a change. Increasingly we see people "get it"; these people are however in organizations that don’t. Thus, I think we need to do a better job with managers to help them understand their role in the change. That was in part the motivation for creating the Professional Agile Leadership class at and taking advantage of the business imperatives such as Digital to provide a context for the value. Of course, there are lots of examples of managers who do get it. New-ish companies like Spotify, Fitbit, and Tesla, but also traditional companies such as ING, GE and KLM. Also some interesting experiences outside of IT with Ghana Police Force adopting Scrum to better serve their citizens. All of these successful companies have leaders who are willing to empower their teams and build an organization that supports them. Sadly, that is still not true for all.

Too long we said "Agile is great and you are too stupid to get it." Or used agile to grind our particular axe such as technical debt, or better test practices. Instead, we need to connect agile to how it can improve a company’s ability to deliver customer value and take advantage of Lean Startup and Design Thinking.

InfoQ: Are there also things that hinder agile adoption, things that the industry should stop doing?

West: I see too many organizations adopting agile in a waterfall way. Very well intentioned and with all the right bits but focused on the motion of adopting agile rather than the outcomes and the value. Instead of adopting agile in a waterfall way, use an agile approach. Focus on value, connect to the customer and inspect and adapt through transparency.

Just by focusing on the agile values you will find the adoption is much easier. Of course, still hard and it will ask lots of hard questions of the organization, but at least you will be incrementally delivering value. And we are starting to see organizations do this. For example the Ghana Police Force does not have the time or budget to adopt agility in a waterfall way. Instead they focus on a team by team adoption and slowly change the support organization to better serve them.

It is important that our industry start talking more about adoption. Adding more practices on incrementally rolling agility out. For example, using Scrum to adopt Scrum where you add a backlog for adoption, a Product Owner who drives the change and has the vision and a Scrum Master who makes it flow. This reminds me of the agile adoption at Ericsson where they used agile to adopt agile with some pretty exciting results.

InfoQ: What do you expect that the future will bring for agile?

West: Considering we are agile, it is hard to answer that. The future is full of unknowns that could change everything. But I do think that agility is around to stay. I might be biased (:-)), but I think a Scrum-like approach will form the basis for every team embarking on complex work. Yes, the words might be different, and for many they might not call it Scrum, but people will approach the work in an empirical way and will work in self organized teams. They will focus on customer outcomes and think of their work as a series of hypotheses that need to be proven or disproven. Design thinking, Lean UX, Lean Startup and DevOps are all part of the story. The future that I see is far less predictable and more complex than today and everyone will need to be agile to survive it.

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