And Change the World in Doing So?
The “Why Are You Here?” Question
Every time I deliver a course I like to ask the participants why they want to learn about Agile. I guess that’s a pretty common question for an Agile class. Except, in most cases, I tend to repeat two or even three times the “why” question.
One of the most thrilling experiences of delivering a class is to discover the “why” that makes somebody sit down and listen to you for two or three days in a row.
The other question that I always ask is at the end. And it goes something like this “will you be able to implement this in your organisation?” As you can probably guess, a very common answer is “this is great but my company is not yet ready to support it”.
So, the obvious conclusion is people still want to learn about Agile even if the environment around them is not very supportive of the idea of empowerment or self-organising teams. Why would they still want to spend that amount of effort for something that might not be fully beneficial to the organisation that employs them?
The answer is pretty simple: you can be agile by yourself! And that’s an amazing first step. In fact, starting with the individuals might be the only step when you want to become a more agile organisation.
There are a number of reasons:
Performance. Agile focuses on improving the way you work and by embracing the principles and following the best practices you become more efficient. You constructively analyse your work and focus more on value-adding activities while compressing or even eliminating those that are just wasting your time.
Value. Yes, you will really understand what value is! And not how your organisation is defining it in its marketing brochures but from real customers who experience real problems and would like to enjoy some real benefits. You will know what is valuable and what is not.
Competition. With Agile you can stay ahead in the game. While the game is getting tougher you can still prove yourself relevant. Corporations are becoming big fans of the “doing more with less” formula which means they will streamline resource utilisation even more. Being fluent in Agile will make you stand out and at some point, it might make a huge difference.
Career. Just read any job advert and try to find one that doesn’t mention the word “Agile”. Things have evolved really fast and Agile is not a buzz word anymore. It is not even something “preferable”. It is mandatory! In fact, it’s safe to say that in more and more jobs and industries not mastering Agile methods is a major career blocker.
Look smart. Empowerment, self-organising, servant leadership, value for customers, efficiency, effectiveness! Just imagine yourself saying this out loud in a meeting room full of people. A good command of the Agile vocabulary will make you more credible and trustworthy. And that’s a currency that you can turn into whatever you want.
I Am Convinced! But How Do I Do it?
Agile is one of those things that you do. Of course, you can read about it, you can listen to somebody talk about it but essentially, you do it. To illustrate this, we’re going to refer to an old model that everybody in the Agile community just loves: Shu-Ha-Ri! Yes, it’s Japanese!
Shu. This is the first level. When you want to learn something new and you realise you have to do some learning. So, you find yourself a source of knowledge and follow it. Try to understand it, ask all the possible questions but persist. Don’t give up! This first level is usually the hardest. But if you succeed, it will give you the satisfaction of a correct understanding of the topic. What can you do here? Read a book! Attend an Agile training course!
Ha. At this second level you already possess the basic knowledge and you would like to enrich it. So, you diversify the sources of learning and the knowledge becomes more profound. Read more books, attend some more Agile advanced courses, go to some conferences and you’re good to go. Here you can do some thinking about what situations are suitable for the practices and tools that you are familiar with. Where could be you be more agile in thinking and doing?
Ri. This is the ultimate level! At this level all the learning will come from doing. Of course, you can always pay attention to others but the most meaningful experiences will come from your own practice. This is where it’s all about applying everything you’ve learned to every possible situation: eliminate wasteful activities at the office, organise dishes or clothes at home, optimise dropping off and picking up the kids, train for a marathon (careful about sprints though!) and so on. Life is full of opportunities for you to be more agile.
Up the Corporate Ladder
True benefits of doing Agile occur when you convince others to join the movement. Part of becoming more agile as an individual is also how to get new followers. But how do you convince others that by doing Agile their work will be improved?
Implementing Agile for an organisation comes down to change management. And we all know how much we love change. How do I manage to change a few things here and there while nobody is willing to work with me this way or even listen to me? Not to mention to get the empowerment and the freedom that I need to be able to make those changes.
Again, some of the things you hear in classroom. The corporation wouldn’t change! Management will not support it! Finance always asks for budgets! PMO wants a Gantt chart! It seems many times we are passively waiting for a change to happen. The “waiting” is the default strategy for change management. I am waiting and when they are ready we’ll change. When it comes to Agile, if you truly want those benefits (see above) you just do it. And here’s how.
Nothing is impossible! No, it’s not a stupid advertisement and deep down we all know that everything is, in fact, possible. But it is a matter of cost or effort involved to get it done. Most of us get discouraged by the fact that some things are not easy. And to make things worse, we often start with those things that are not easy. In fact, we start with the hardest!
When it comes to doing Agile, mapping all the implementation ideas on a two-by-two matrix helps a lot. And those two dimensions are: effort and impact. See below a more graphical illustration.
The question is: why would somebody start with D? Because that’s what trying to change your organisation is. A huge amount of effort and very low immediate impact. There will be some major impact someday but will you have the energy and the resources to go that far?
Just by looking at this simple matrix it is obvious that we should start where we have the highest impact and it requires less effort. That would be A! And that is your own job. Your own work and tasks and emails and meetings and conference call. This is the easiest. And the impact is huge. It might not be obvious but it’s huge! Just imagine if somebody would give you a few hours a day back! And the effort to achieve this is rather small. All you have to do is apply some Lean thinking and principles and maybe learn more about value-adding versus wasteful activities.
And then we go into those activities that require more effort but the impact is still high. This is the B area. This would be our team, our colleagues, our project. It might not be as easy as doing something on your own but for sure you can influence your colleagues. You can be a role model for them. You are one of them and probably they will listen to you.
We’re not going to go into C and D for obvious reasons. Nobody wants to waste any effort for something that has low impact.
Another way to look at this matrix is to add control into the equation. How much do you control the environment where you want to implement the change? And here’s an example of how that might look for you.
You have a high degree of control over your own actions. A bit less on your teammates activities and maybe even less at your department level. And let’s face it, most of us have almost no control at the overall corporate level. So where should we start?
As an agile individual you will get major benefits at personal level for using these techniques and practices. But if you convince others, those benefits become exponential. Here are some suggestions about how you can sell it to them:
Team level. Talk about flow. About how deliverables have to go through different resources who might not be in sync. In fact, even better, use a Kanban board to visualise that flow. Discuss about how big is the inventory. On how many items we have to work simultaneously. Maybe even challenge that and come up with a limit on your Work-In-Progress. When you visualise it and notice it doesn’t flow you may want to mention pull versus push. Implementing these simple techniques, the value delivered by your team will increase considerably and make you a very important contributor to the end result.
Department level. Here maybe you want to consider the value of the deliverable or the product you’re building. Talk about backlog and prioritisation. User stories and benefits for customers. Reviews and customer feedback. Fail fast, prototyping and pivoting. If you get their attention with these subjects they will probably be interested in adopting them. And you’ll end up being part of a department that delivers more value to their customers.
Corporate level. It is often discouraging to even think we can change our companies. But if you open your eyes and see the reality as it is, you might find some very convincing arguments. And with little effort you might get somebody’s attention. What would be the “agile” topics here? Normally, things around customer satisfaction, delivering on the vision, making a difference in your customers lives. When they post a very flattering comment to say how happy they are with the product and you know you did your best to deliver it, you know it was a good decision to spread the word about Agile.
In conclusion, a few things to remember. Doing Agile at a personal level has some amazing benefits. You are more efficient as an individual, your career is booming, you are delivering fast, are reliable and trustworthy. If you manage to get others onboard with this initiative those benefits will increase tremendously. Not only is this going to be better for you as an individual, it will benefit your colleagues, your organisation and probably, most importantly, your customers.