October 30, 2017

Agile – What is holding us back?

Written by Leo Belenky

Thoughts on Agile DC 2017
In early February of 2001, a small group of software developers published the Agile Manifesto. Its principles are now familiar to countless professionals. Over the years, Agile practices seem to have gained mainstream appeal. Today it is difficult to find a software developer, or even a manager who has never heard of Agile. Having been a software developer for over 15 years, to me, Agile methodologies appear to embody a very natural way of producing software, so in a lot of ways, Agile conferences produce a “preaching to the choir” effect as well. As I attended the Agile DC 2017 conference, I wanted to remove myself from the bubble and try to objectively take a pulse of the state of Agile today. I also wanted to learn about the challenges that Agile seems to continue to face in its adoption at the enterprise level.

Basic takeaways
As I listened to various speakers and held conversations with colleagues and even one of the presenters, it appears that today the main challenges of adopting Agile no longer deal specifically with software engineering. That generally makes sense, given the amount of literature, combined experience and continuous improvement software development teams have been able to produce as Agile has matured from a disruptive toddler into a young adult. The real struggle appears to be in adoption of Agile across other business units, not so much IT. Why is that? I believe the two main reasons for the struggle can be attributed to organizational culture, but most importantly lack of knowledge in relation to team dynamics and human psychology.

Agile seems to continue to clash with the way business units are organized. Some hierarchical structures may produce very siloed and stovepiped groups that have difficulty collaborating with one another. While this may appear as an insurmountable problem, there is at least one great example of how Agile organizations have addressed it. We can point to DevOps as a great strategy of integrating or streamlining traditionally separate IT units. Software development teams and IT Operations teams have traditionally existed in their respective silos, often functioning as completely separate units. There was a clear need of streamlining collaboration between the two to improve efficiency and increase throughput. As a result, DevOps continues on a successful path. In regards to other business units, “Marketing” may depend on “Legal” or “Product Development” may depend on “Compliance”. There may be a clear need to streamline collaboration between these business units. One of my favorite presentations at the conference was by Colleen Johnson entitled “End to End Kanban for the Whole Organization”. By creating a corporate Kanban board, separate business units were able to collaborate better and absorb change faster. One of the business unit leaders was able to see that there were unnecessary resources being allocated to supporting a product development effort that was dropped (into the “dropped” row on the board). Anecdotally, this realization occurred during a walk down the hall and a quick glance at the board.

When it comes to software development, Agile appears to contain some key properties that make it a very logical and a natural fit within the practice. Perhaps its success stories in the software development community is what produced a perception that it applies specifically to software engineering and not to other groups within an organization. It seems to me that one of the main themes of the conference was to help educate professionals who possess an agnostic view related to the benefits of an Agile transformation. I believe that continuous education is critical to getting business unit leaders to embrace Agile at the enterprise level. Some properties of Agile and its related methodologies addresses some important aspects of human psychology.  This is where the education seems to lack. There is much focus on improvement in efficiency and production of value, with little explanation of why these benefits are reaped. In simple terms, working in an Agile environment makes people happier. There are “softer” aspects that business leaders should consider when adopting Agile methodologies. Focus on incremental problem solving provides a higher level of satisfaction as work gets completed. This helps trigger a mechanism within the reward system of our brain. Continuous delivery helps improve morale as staff is able to associate their immediate efforts to the visible progress of their projects. Close collaboration and problem solving creates strong bonds between team members and fosters shared accountability. Perhaps a detailed discussion on team dynamics and psychology is a whole separate topic for another blog, but I feel these topics are important to managing the perception of the role of Agile at the enterprise level.

Final thoughts
It is important to note that enterprise-wide Agile transformations are taking place. For example, several speakers at the conference highlighted success stories at Capital One. It seems that enterprise-wide adoption is finally happening, albeit very incrementally, but perhaps that is the Agile way.

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