What’s standing in the way of achieving “true agility”

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Digital transformation is now more important than ever. It’s a statement that has continued to be stressed and echoed throughout the industry for years, but with organizations now forced to deal with distributed and remote work, there is a new need to reexamine business models, according to Nick Muldoon, co-founder and co-CEO of Easy Agile.

The 14th annual State of Agile report found that distributed teams is the new normal with 81% of respondents citing that their team members are not all in the same location. Businesses need to be able find new ways to support and encourage team collaboration, manage changing projects and provide visibility.

“So how can we accelerate change when we know our processes are fundamentally broken?” Muldoon asked. His answer is Agile because it promotes flexibility and transparency businesses so desperately need now in a COVID and post-COVID world. The State of Agile report also found that respondents were using Agile to respond to the current business challenges, manage distributed teams, improve productivity and deliver software faster. 

“Agile gives so many companies results. It removes ambiguity from the value being delivered. Where before we couldn’t be sure when a project or new product could be delivered, we can now know with more certainty that a MVP can be shipped and we can receive feedback from customers much earlier,” said Muldoon. 

Many organizations already have had Agile practices in place for years and have continued to build upon those practices, but Muldoon explained Agile is an ongoing practice, one that will never get to a phase of “post-Agile.” Businesses will always have to manage changing priorities, to improve, and to adapt — all aspects of adopting the Agile mindset. 

The roadblocks on the path to true agility
Agile challenges are ever-changing depending on the company, team and current business needs. However, there are a few that continue to pose a problem.   

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is one of the first values in the Agile Manifesto, yet people are still focused on processes over people, according to Muldoon. 

Dan Rice, executive advisor for ValueOps/DevOps at Broadcom’s Rally Software, explained in order to make agility truly work, buy-in has to happen across the entire organization — and it’s easier done when it comes from the top down. “The key areas we see that still hinder the ability to deliver value to customers are generally related to leadership teams not embracing the Agile culture or thinking Agile is just something IT or software delivery teams do,” he said. 

Leadership will continue to be a major obstacle unless people in power are willing to relinquish control to the next generation of leaders who were brought up on lean and Agile practices, Muldoon said. 

“All too often there are people at the top of companies that are protecting the status quo, the entrenched interests, and themselves. We need to see the servant leaders elevated from people managers to department leads, business unit CEOs, and then the board,” Muldoon explained. 

“Quite often the CEOs and board members don’t come from a software background; they come from finance, legal and marketing more often these days, but not IT or software. Scarcity versus abundance mindset — anything can be done in software, yet for an accountant it is very clear-cut and regulated,” he continued.

One rising trend to help the organization achieve true agility is to embrace value stream management. VSM is being adopted more and more as a way to connect people, process and technology as well as provide the ability to visualize, measure and deliver business value. According to Rice, Agile is a key enabler to making all the people and steps involved in the delivery of value a part of the product development process.

A “characteristic of Agile done well is when value streams, all of the people and steps involved in the delivery of value to a customer, are part of the product development process.  A key lean principle of Agile is connecting business stakeholders and developers so that they work together daily through the project. Value streams make this a core aspect of an organization’s culture of Agility,” Rice explained.

Another way Rice sees organizations implementing Agile throughout the organization is to incorporate agility into HR functions, encourage autonomy, hire for Agile and culture fit and provide interactive performance feedback.

Muldoon agreed, adding: “Invest in people; it’s the greatest leading indicator of sustained success. Give them the opportunities to expand the breadth of their experience / role and try new things, cross-pollinating one group with the ideas from another, and making the whole company stronger.”

Rice also sees the need to move from project-based operating models to product-based operating models with a customer-centric approach to make sure teams are building products customers actually want. 

“Agile puts the customer and the outcomes they care about most at the center of the products we build. By advocating for long-lived product teams, bringing work to teams instead of bringing teams to work, Agile enables organizations to give customers working software at regular intervals and to facilitate continuous feedback,” he said. 

Easy Agile’s Muldoon also sees a trend towards businesses being more customer-focused with the release of SAFe 5.0 for example, which “introduced language around Personas, story mapping sessions, and really bringing empathy for the customer into focus for teams.”

By focusing on the customer, organizations can react to change and respond at regular intervals, Rice added. Agile “encourages organizations to reflect regularly and become a learning organization so they can constantly improve.” 

Muldoon also stressed the importance of playing the long game. While it may be tempting to think short-term to address current needs, a transformation can’t be fast-tracked. “True agility comes after a decade of sustained commitment to the Agile principles,” he said. Thinking needs to go from annual financial goals to long-sustainable growth. 

But they also need to be able to quickly pivot based on market changes and feedback from innovators and customers. Rice explained. “Organizations maintaining traditional processes such as identifying investments multiple years in advance and locking in feature roadmaps have worked to their detriment to reaching true agility.”

“When new strategies are identified or experiments fail, organizations must be able to quickly pivot on their strategy, investments and roadmaps so they do not continue down the wrong path,” Rice said. 

Digital transformations will “continue forever as the company changes and adapts to an evolving market. Be prepared to stick it out,” Muldoon added. 

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