By Chad Greenslade
I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.
Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints
There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model. Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish. Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.
The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”. Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation. If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model. In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel. “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices. Agile requires collaboration. Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place. Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves. In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work. Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration. Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.
The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change. In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent. Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift. In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on. You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources. You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal. When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.
A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture. Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort. This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it. Agile requires lightweight processes. This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped. Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time. If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed. It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed. For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it. However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets. You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not. When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort. You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.
The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust. Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile. A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time. When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources. When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work. Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality. By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.