Are you faking or forcing agile?

Any kind of transformation requires strategy, time, effort and money. It’s not something that you can shortcut.

Colin Ellis Jun 11th 2019
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I’m working with an Australian tech team to help them evolve their culture so that they have greater flexibility in the way that they think and act.

In the opening speech to the 2-day culture definition session, the team’s chief information officer said: ‘Other organisations like to fake or force agile, we’re going to do neither of those things. We’re empowering you to create something that you can bring your best self to and then to find smarter ways to deliver value more quickly to our customers.’

It was a refreshing thing to hear and immediately got me thinking about the definitions of these two things and how I could help others understand how to do agile well. So here’s my assessment of it and I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

I talk about agile a lot at conferences because that’s what people want and it’s also what they think they want. They think they want what they hear others have.

They want to deliver value quickly to the customer, they want to do more with less, they want high engagement scores and they want to be an employer of choice.

Any kind of transformation requires strategy, time, effort and money. It’s not something that you can shortcut. As Bain pointed out in 2017, ‘transformation involves change at every level of the organisation.’

Yet the fact remains, that whilst organisations may seek transformation, greater business agility and the perceived benefits that come with that, simply stating that they’re ‘going agile’ or copying someone else’s approach isn’t going to do it. In fact, it may just make things worse.

Employees aren’t stupid. They’ve seen this kind of knee-jerk management activity before with Lean, ISO9000, PRINCE2, SixSigma and so on. I know I was involved in some of it!

Small gains may have been made, but the underlying cultural issues were never addressed and poor behaviours and performance continued to hold organisations back.

And so, to agile.

Organisations with great cultures aren’t talking about going agile, they continually invest in their people and culture and look at how new thinking and ways of working can enhance what they do or provide them with greater competitive advantage.

They favour micro-learning sessions over mass learning programs and make honest and continual feedback a cornerstone of the way they do things.

Not for them the pursuit of a golden ticket, only to abandon it when they realise that the activity they’ve undertaken isn’t going to provide the results they thought it would.

So are you faking or forcing?

Faking agile involves saying things that make staff, customers and shareholders think that the organisation is taking a new approach, without addressing the fundamental issues that held them back in the first place. Often these are things they’ve seen or read about in organisations that have great cultures and they feel they can copy them.

These include:

  • Lots of managers saying 'we're going agile'
  • Members of the executive photographed in front of a Kanban board
  • New values (see forcing agile below) in large letters on the walls
  • Implementing an open plan office layout
  • One (or all) of ping pong table, bean bags, quirky meeting room names
  • Talking about customer value
  • Talking about 'scaling' agile

McKinsey frequently cite copy-pasting agile as a major cultural flaw, saying in one report, ‘Emulating someone else's model without a clear vision and deep understanding of agile can cause significant harm.’

Forcing agile involves doing things that they think will demonstrate that the organisation is more agile. At least there’s action here, it’s just not always helpful.

These include:

  • Rolling out Scrum training...in a waterfall way
  • Implementing new ways of working
  • Restructuring to “encourage collaboration”
  • Changing the names of teams
  • Consultant-led culture 'change' initiatives including telling staff what the vision and values are
  • Forcing staff to sign new 'agile' contracts
  • Using agile coaches to train people on Slack/Jira/MS Teams etc.

Ron Jeffries, an original signatory of the Agile Manifesto back in 2001, called on software developers to reject these ‘so-called’ agile approaches, saying ‘It breaks my heart to see the ideas we wrote about in the Agile Manifesto used to make developers’ lives worse, instead of better.’

Organisations conveniently forget that central to the agile manifesto was they ‘[promote] organisational models based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organisational communities in which we would want to work.’

In short, spend the time to involve staff in building the culture they need to be flexible in their approach and trusted to get the job done.

These kinds of environments produce highly emotionally intelligent people who consistently deliver positive results, increasing productivity by as much as 20 per cent, according to Gallup.

McKinsey again, ‘Agile succeeds when people – including leaders – possess the right set of skills and mindsets.’

And changing someone’s mindset cannot be done overnight.

However, by involving people in the definition of the new culture, getting them to agree targets with their teams, showing them how to communicate and collaborate in different ways and having senior leaders who can role model what agility looks like on a daily basis, it can happen.

Then and only then, will organisations be on their way to creating something that’s more agile. Unfortunately, however, most have already given up before they get to that stage.

Colin D Ellis is an award-winning international speaker and facilitator of culture and project management programs. His latest publication The Project Book: How to Consistently Deliver Great Projects will be in shops on 1st July. For more details head to www.colindellis.com.