Why perfect is the enemy of good - using lean change to apply agile in context
At Fractal Systems we strive to educate our clients and the project teams that we partner with about the importance of applying Agile in context. Which, to put it simply, means that we always begin by understanding the very specific needs and challenges of the wider organisation and of the smaller teams within it.
That’s primarily because shifting an organisation – of any size and in any industry – from a traditional Waterfall approach to project management towards a more dynamic Agile approach demands fundamental changes in the ways people work.
There is very little doubt that Covid-19 has only served to accelerate businesses’ need for Agile adoption over the last 12 months, as the 14th Annual State of Agile Report noted: “Agile adoption improves key capabilities needed to respond to current business challenges, especially those resulting from the pandemic. With 60 percent of survey respondents saying Agile has helped increase speed to market, 41 percent agreeing they are better able to manage distributed teams, and 58 percent saying they have improved team productivity it is clear these practices are invaluable during these challenging times.”
In many ways, the key educational challenge we face is about delivering a mindset change across the entire organisation. And failing to recognise and realise this change in mindset is one of the key reasons why 47% of Agile Transformations fail.
Don’t run before you can walk
Importantly, unlike many Agile coaches and training programmes, our teams of Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and Skilled Engineers all come from a project delivery background. Our team’s combined experience of overcoming the barriers to agility on numerous projects gives us a deep understanding of how to apply agile methods, tooling and technologies in ways that are fully appropriate for each client’s context.
For example, in many large organisations, it is simply unfeasible to suggest that senior managers, already overwhelmed (with up to 100+ reports) meet up with all of their project delivery teams on a bi-weekly basis. The senior execs that we work with in banks, financial organisations and asset management firms are massively time-poor, operating in lean resource environments. Yet we still see many attempts by coaches trying to introduce Agile frameworks into large multimodal organisations with globally-distributed teams fall at this first hurdle.
Instead, using a lean change approach, we incrementally introduce the elements of an agile framework that make the most sense for where an organisation is at. This is what we mean when we talk about a ‘contextual’ introduction of agile working practices and collaboration approaches. Particularly in those organisations that are still tied to fairly traditional Waterfall project management methodologies and ways of thinking.
Perfect is the enemy of good
Those traditional methods that map out projects into distinct and sequential phases are very often heavily focused on teams working linearly towards a perceived ‘perfect’ end goal. They are marked by a separation of concerns, with business teams spending an inordinate amount of time planning an ‘end product’, writing out requirements documents and then handing these over to a technical or project team to go away and deliver.
What is Lean Change?
An Agile approach turns this on its head and constantly stresses that perfect is the enemy of good. We introduce an Agile mindset using the pilot and aircraft metaphor: it doesn’t matter how amazing your aircraft (or your delivery team) is, if the pilot (the business) leaves the plane it probably won’t make it to its destination. Similarly, just as absent or disengaged (or unqualified) pilot spells disaster, we ask the teams we work with: how many programmes have failed due to a lack of business engagement?
So instead of planning this ideal or perfect end product and working towards that, Agile brings together the business and the project teams as one single, cross-functional team. And it encourages the planning of smaller deliverables in shorter sprints (typically weeks, rather than months or years). Which means that, at the end of each sprint, you can retrospectively change or adapt as necessary. Delivering considerably more transparency and results for the business.
Introducing this iterative delivery arc model, structured collaboration and complete transparency between teams supercharges the ability to learn, adapt and change direction. We understand and break down one of the enduring illusions of Waterfall: that the business is able to clearly and specifically define its requirements and then throw these over the wall to the technical teams, with the (false) assumption those teams will deliver on those requirements to a given budget, within an agreed timeframe.
Agile, in contrast, offers a far more honest, risk-averse and transparent approach. Agile teams still agree on a project roadmap, but on the vitally important understanding that the business and market needs are (almost inevitably) going to change within the course of the project timeline. So instead of promising a final deliverable in six to eighteen months’ time, agile project delivery moves in the direction of the agreed project roadmap, and starts to deliver things on the way.
Which is why, no matter how turbulent or fast-moving the business or market may be, creating this transparency – and constantly ensuring that the project team is composed of engaged cross-functional business and technical roles – is absolutely necessary to ensure that the correct mix of skill sets and an Agile mindset is established throughout any organisation. And that agility properly delivers value to the business that is repeatable, reliable, safe and rapid.
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.
If you’re interested in learning in a fun, application-rich environment that focuses on real-world applied approaches, register for one of our training courses.