Agile Still Works

by May 14, 2020Agile, Scrum Framework

It is a time of unprecedented challenge. Firms are experiencing extraordinary disruption.  Productivity is impacted. Delivery has stalled. Leaders worry about survival, remaining profitable and/or competitive in a distributed environment.

When we speak to our clients and partners, the biggest sentiment we hear is ‘Forget thriving, how are we supposed to survive this?’

Now, Next, Later

There are at least three questions going through most leaders’ minds

1) How do we re-align and re-integrate to recover lost performance and productivity, now?

2) How do we adapt in the medium term?

3) How do we handle a new distributed world?

Firms and teams are scrambling to overcome lost productivity and lost competitiveness. Our people are dealing with personal confinement, illness, food worries, children’s education and self-care, plus the health of our loved ones. If this wasn’t enough, people are worried about their jobs and their livelihoods. Under such tremendous turbulence, organisations need dependable ways of working.

Technology alone won’t solve the problem. Classical approaches aren’t enough.

Roll out Zoom?

Getting infrastructure and remote working tools is a good start. Now, more than ever we need dependable collaboration tools for high bandwidth communication and conversations. But is that enough? Tools fail, processes stop, things go wrong.

As experienced people know, tools don’t ensure learning or adaptability. Tools don’t ensure effective collaboration.

In an effort to curb productivity leakage, some managers are turning to software to monitor their people. The NY Times ran a piece which suggested that demand for online monitoring tools have surged. But, we will most surely not overcome the challenges we face by turning our management layer into the company police force.

So online tooling doesn’t guarantee productivity, let alone innovation or creativity. So if it’s not just tools… what is it?

Classical clockwork.

Turn to classical approaches? Standard Waterfall strategies are not built for the high-speed world we live in today. Spending months writing requirements documents then tracking via Gantt charts or Microsoft Project doesn’t deliver the goods.

To achieve business outcomes, managers and teams still need to know what work to complete. They still need visibility of progress. Team-mates still need help solving problems. All this is complicated by the need to manage food, energetic children, vulnerable parents and our social connections.

Classical approaches use a rational (theoretical?) approach to predict delivery, sometimes walking backwards from a deadline to force-fit work against targets and deliverables. Waterfall methods are slow to adapt as, even at their best,  they are designed for stable environments. Even before Covid-19, teams struggled to deliver under such conditions. Now, with so much disruption every day, these classical methods’ shortfalls are amplified. It’s no wonder that firms worry that productivity might be near zero, that profits might be zero and losses catastrophic.

In a clockwork world, where everything is known, predictable and stable, classical approaches might be the right method. When nothing changes, we can anticipate what will happen and create the perfect plan with the right milestones to successfully deliver.

We don’t live in a clockwork world.

We know that we live in a complex world. Complexity means that we cannot rationally deduce a straight-line path to solve our current challenges. Complexity means that the interactions of all kinds of known and unknown factors combine to generate the outcomes we see and experience. This is emergence. Standard planning and management approaches don’t work in such environments.

We need a way to align our teams and our people with adaptive plans and approaches that favour learning through experience.

What’s needed now are proven frameworks that help teams systematically and deliberately adapt and improvise, whilst keeping delivery outcomes firmly at the centre of all they do.

People and Interactions over tools and software. Management Innovation.

Agile has been around for a while now, but many firms still see agility as a software development solution. It’s no secret that agile software teams see all sorts of performance gains.

But the truth is that Agile frameworks work wherever we need to optimise learning and adaptability. Like now. Now we need approaches that orientate all of us, in our teams, to act and learn together. Agile frameworks help us do that.

Just so we are clear. Agile frameworks don’t fix your problems. Agile frameworks make transparent what your problems are, so you can fix your problems.

In addition, Agile frameworks help us align ourselves to see and exploit the opportunities that these conditions create.

We are Scrum practitioners. And Scrum is an Agile framework that organises teams using five events, three roles and three artefacts. Skillful use of the Scrum framework creates environments biased toward action and optimised for transparency, learning and adaptation.

We use the Scrum framework to help our clients answer the following ‘how’ questions.

  • How should we collaborate and communicate to solve the daily problems we encounter?
  • How should we collaborate to review the outcome of our work?
  • How do we consistently optimise and improve how we work?
  • How should we manage our interactions to consistently and deliberately learn and adapt?
  • How can we find the right cadence for collaboration and when should we collaborate?

Agile isn’t just for software.

In our consulting work we frequently train, mentor and coach our clients to use Scrum as a management framework. The non-software teams we have worked with consistently reported astonishing productivity gains prior to Covid-19 and hold a steady course now.

As an example. As part of our work for a large asset manager, we worked with a systematic investment division to successfully embed Scrum. Once they understood the “why”, the teams were determined to embed Scrum throughout their ways of working and were successful in their transformation. Our work done, we exited and moved to a light touch coaching approach.

Before lockdown, I remember coming into the client’s office one day and finding that the entire division was missing. I was impressed to learn that this group self-isolated well prior to government-enforced lockdown.

How? As experts in defining and managing risk, they had rapidly and proactively anticipated the common problems they would experience, ran tests to iron out difficulties with their operations, worked out how they would communicate, set up technology, learned through failures to put backups in place and rapidly iterated till they got it right. They ran their next Big Room Planning, engaging all six teams – 100% remotely.

Are they done? No. They still learn every day, they resolve problems every day, look ahead to anticipate problems, come together at the end of a Sprint (delivery time box) to showcase their work to stakeholders and review how they did, and what they do to improve. They used Scrum as a management framework to guide their actions.

We are not alone in generating these results. Our Agile colleagues regularly tell us that their teams responded well to the world’s disruption, in many cases self-isolating early, overcoming problems deliberately, proactively and regularly, and moving forward creatively. Such responses, not merely to recover from the shocks of the pandemic, but to take us forward towards a healthier and even more abundant global community, will be needed in every corner of the world.

Jay is co-founder of Fractal Systems Consulting, an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches who have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change, get in touch here

Additionally, if you’re interested in learning in a fun application rich environment that focuses on real-world applied approaches, come along to one of our training’s at agile scrum training