Is Agile still Agile? That was the intriguing topic for a panel discussion at Agile Europe in Gdansk last week. The panel included Ray Arell (Intel), Hendrik Esser (Ericsson), Steve Holyer (independent Agile coach), Todd Little (IHS) and myself. Among the conclusions: The most important thing in Agile today is not even mentioned in the Agile Manifesto: an Agile mindset. Here are some excerpts from the discussion.
Todd Little: The first line of the Agile Manifesto is about valuing individuals and interactions ahead of tools and processes. Yet what do we see being sold in the marketplace, but processes and tools? Agile has become way too much about processes and tools, partly as a result of the way the economic engine works. People are looking for, and buying, processes and tools, when it should be about the Agile mindset.
That’s the challenge we face in keeping Agile truly Agile. The core of Agile is recognizing that we need to get to and maintain an Agile mindset. If I have an organization with an Agile mindset, and really rock-solid product management, Agile processes and tools will evolve out of that. If you have the Agile mindset and an awesome connection with your customers and are solving their problems, things will evolve in the right way. You won’t even realize you’re being Agile. It’s just good business.
There is a risk today there that Agile is being co-opted by natural business forces that also fuel its growth. It’s not that processes and tools aren’t useful. It’s just that they are not as important as the Agile mindset and the individual interactions.
Steve Denning: When we conducted the site visits of the Learning Consortium, we saw that having an Agile mindset is central. If you have the right mindset, it hardly mattered what tools and processes you were using, the Agile mindset made things come out right. Conversely, if you didn’t have an Agile mindset, it didn’t matter if you were implementing every tool and process and system exactly according to the book, no benefits flowed. If you read the Agile Manifesto, there is no reference to mindset. So we need to move on. Agile is a mindset.
Hendrik Esser: The problem is that Agile has also become an industry. So there are tons of training and consulting companies who make their money being Agile coaches and consultants. They want to make business with the business leaders. So they promise, “If you go Agile, you will be 60% more productive.” This is the kind of narrative that is being sold. So the narratives is there and it can be misused to promote the opposite of genuine Agile, merely productivity increases. Anything that is not on the backlog is not done. And if innovation is not on the backlog, innovation is simply not done. This is one of the wrong turnings that Agile can take.
Ray Arell: What we’re seeing today is the risk of Agile being often treated as a process, so that Agile becomes just delivery and supply chain. For example, you see a big firm get in a three-year cycle: They decide that they need to go and be Agile again. So they hire a bunch of coaches and they go for about two years, and they declare, “We’re Agile” and they back up an aircraft carrier, and have a big party and they fire all the coaches.
The traditional management mindset, if we look at what they are teaching in MBA classes in business schools both in the U.S. and worldwide, is a really nasty theory of constraints, and scarcity and cost-cutting and the feeling that, “Hey if I just make the resources scarce, innovation will pop out.”
If we look at the core of this, we are running up against the idea that management has put themselves on the top. We need to learn from companies like Starbucks. In the hierarchy of Starbucks, the person making the coffee—the barista–is on the top. Everyone else in that company is supporting that individual. Everything else is in service of that. What we have to change in the management paradigm is that if we have a team delivering, the managers work for their team. It’s their job to provide them what they need on a daily basis. It’s not the team delivering to the managers. It’s the managers delivering to the team. Until everyone has that mindset, we’re going to have a lot trouble in Agile. We will declare, “We’re Agile,” and we’ll have Agile T-shirts, and so on, but unless the managers have an attitude of enablement of the teams, the teams won’t be Agile at all.
When the teams that really get the Agile mindset, the heuristics are there, and you see developers turning to other developers and saying, “Hey, that’s not how we do things here, we do it like this.” You seem the teams showing and teaching and mentoring each other. You can really see when people get it. And equally, you can also see when they don’t, where it doesn’t look good at all!
Little: When I think of agility, I think of it in terms adaptability. Agile shouldn’t be saying that this is the way things have to be. And sadly, this is the way a lot of Agile has been packaged. Consultants will say: “We have the answer for you. Follow these rules.” True Agile is about evolving and being able to adjust. It has to grow organically. And that takes a lot of engagement and ownership from the managers and the individual teams.
What Happens To Agile In A Crisis?
Arell: Did you ever see what happens to Agile in a crisis? Managers often throw Agile away and fall back into all the old habits. That’s when you know that Agile hasn’t been fully internalized. It means that the organization is not yet Agile.
A guy in the military once told me: “Why don’t you practice more? In the military, we are always practicing for warfare, so that when the battle comes, we are ready to respond in the right way and do the right things.” In business, when a crisis comes, we fall back into these bizarre traditional patterns.
Esser: The question is: Who is inventing these practices under fire? Is it the teams that have learned the practices? Or is it managers who never learned the practices?
Denning: You can get a sense of this issue from the Harvard Business Review article, “Embracing Agile” in April 2016. Incredibly there is praise for a leadership team that spent 25% of its time on Agile, which raised the question: What did they do with the other 75% of the time? It’s like saying like we’re going to be good 25% but for the rest, not. That could be one of the silliest things ever written in HBR.
If managers have the idea that Agile is something on the side, something part-time, something you use to solve a few narrow problems, and then you set aside and go back to “real management of the organization,” then obviously the managers simply haven’t “got” Agile. They haven’t grasped that Agile a different way of running the organization. So you shouldn’t be surprised, when managers are thinking like that, that they scrap Agile in a crisis. What it means is that you eventually have to persuade the leadership team to go 100% Agile, not just 25%. This is about “being Agile,” not merely “doing Agile.” Unless the management gets to “being Agile,” the life expectancy of even the best Agile teams is not going to be very long.
How Do You Acquire an Agile Mindset?
Denning: Storytelling is a principal way in which you can change people’s minds and acquire an Agile mindset. People often ask me why storytelling? The answer is simple. Often nothing else works. In many situations, it’s often the only way in which you get people to break out of their current way of looking at world and imagine something different. So stories, either by living the story or experiencing the story, can lay the foundation for a new mindset.
Esser: Changing mindsets is a big problem. Storytelling is one approach. Language is another important tool. The way you talk, the words you use, the visualizations you use can shape your thinking. If you keep using the traditional language and visualizations, then it will be very hard to change the traditional mindset.
Steve Holyer: Another way, as Diana Larsen said in her keynote, is that you learn a thing by doing the thing. So you can’t learn Agile by reading the Manifesto, or by reading a book about it. You acquire the mindset by practicing. And you do it in bite-sized chunks. Basic Scrum can be some of the first steps. You have the Manifesto to inspire the mindset shift, but it’s in practicing the practices where you acquire the mindset, and then it’s a progression. You acquire fluency over time. When you acquire fluency, you do the right thing automatically. If you abandon your practices when things get critical, it means you haven’t practiced enough. You haven’t acquired the muscle memory to act fluently and automatically under fire.
Denning: We also need to recognize that changing the mindset takes time. There’s a really funny video on YouTube about someone riding a backwards bicycle—it’s a bicycle where if you turn the handlebars left, the wheels turn right. The rider knows what he has to know, but he simply cannot do it. His body will not execute the actions.
Esser: An issue is that Agile development teams acquire an Agile mindset by learning Agile practices, like Scrum, and are supported by a coach. For other roles in a company, like business management, finance or HR, we don’t have prominent practices and there are usually no coaches. So it is hard for these parts of a company to do a transition to Agile. We can see that Agile is growing beyond software development but we haven’t yet fully figured out how to do that.
Holyer: Something else I got from Diana Larsen’s keynote is that “every investment in learning begins to pay off immediately.” So when we go into organizations with the Agile Fluency Project, we don’t ask “Are you really Agile?” Or, “Are you being Agile enough in this crisis?” We ask the teams about the practices that are second nature. And we ask the leaders if that’s giving the organization everything they need to meet their customers; needs. And, sometimes it is. Depending on the company’s goals and their market, they might not need to be more fluent. When the leaders (and their customers) need more, we ask the leaders what they’re willing to invest in acquiring the fluency they need. What practices will help them make that investment? How can their coaches help them make the investment?
The Problem Of “Fake Agile”
Arell: In a recent conversation I was told: “We’re not doing big-A Agile, we are doing little-A agile.” I said I wasn’t sure what that means. And they had a hard time explaining what they meant.
What’s most disturbing is to hear, “We’re doing agile and it hurts.” We go in and do some diagnostics with them, and the first thing we ask them to do is, “Please read the Manifesto. Look at the 12 principles. Read them back to me.” Most of these teams haven’t read the Manifesto, They barely know one of the twelve principles. These teams are striving towards something but I am not sure that we have the same compass that’s locked on to the same goal.
Denning: One of the things we have to do is to call out fake Agile, when we see it. We have to be willing to say: “That’s fake. It’s not really Agile.” We need to have the honesty and the courage to do that, even though those involved may be very powerful and have a lot of money and influence. Otherwise the Agile movement will die. Bad Agile will drive out good Agile, just as in economics, bad money will destroy the value of good money.
I worry when I hear talk about Agile as: “Twice the work in half the time.” As Tobias Mayer has pointed out, this can come to mean: how to work really hard and be very busy doing things that may or may not add value. Instead, true Agile is more about radically improved effectiveness: e.g. “doing half the work while producing twice the value.”
Agile Is A Paradigm Shift In Management
Denning: We also need to recognize that Agile is a paradigm shift of management. Management was one of the great inventions of the 20th Century and improved the material well-being of billions of people on the planet. It was a wonderful discovery. But as the century wore on, we noticed certain problems and limitations of command-and-control management and we kept developing fixes and adjustments to the basic model. Eventually in 2001, the authors of the Agile Manifesto at Snowbird figured out that you couldn’t “fix” command-and-control management. We actually needed a fundamentally different way of doing this kind of knowledge work. And it turned out that it was not just a better way of developing software. Although the guys at Snowbird may not have realized it, they had stumbled on a fundamentally different and better way of running whole organizations.
So for the last 15 years, we’ve been having a struggle, figuring what exactly Agile might look like in the whole organization, even a large organization, and filling in some of the gaps and showing how to mesh software teams with the rest of the organization.
Now we’re moving into a third phase when a lot of people have realized that this could be a better way to run an organization. So now we have Harvard Business Review, “Embracing Agile” for the first time with its article in April 2016. There are flaws in the article, but nevertheless HBR is embracing Agile for the first time. Now what we’re seeing is consolidation of the view that Agile is indeed a better way to run an organization. Our work will be done when Agile and management will be synonyms and no one will know the difference between Agile and management. Our job is to get on with the business of making management a synonym of Agile.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com. © Copyright Stephen Denning 2016. All rights reserved.
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