Three Decades of Agile

The Agile Manifesto [1], created in 2001, brought about a significant shift in the development of (software) products. The values and principles in the manifesto have since evolved and expanded, and we continue to discover better ways to implement them. Overall, the changes have been positive and continue to benefit the industry.

This article discusses the journey we have collectively taken over the past few decades and predicts what is to come. It also highlights the varying levels of maturity that different teams possess, as well as the obstacles that may impede their ability to create value now and in the future. 

This discussion is relevant to every team and organization, whether they face challenges typical of previous decades, current challenges, or future challenges. Those who fail to rise to the challenge risk being outperformed by those who do.

In this article, I will refer to the decades as if they represent clear milestones of progress. However, this is a rough oversimplification of what has happened in the Agile community, as well as for individual organizations and teams. 

My intention is not to suggest that organizations and teams struggling with issues associated with earlier decades are old-fashioned or doing things wrong. Each organization and team faces unique challenges and has its legacy to contend with. However, I have learned that referring to 2000s-level teams, from a change perspective, is much more potent than addressing structural team problems. The latter is too easy to ignore or make excuses for.

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Strategizing over Strategy

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that strategies are useless, but strategizing is indispensable” might be a frank reformulation of the famous quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower[note] In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.[/note]. Still, the truth of the increasingly complex business environment is that plans and strategies are invalidated faster and faster. Few CEOs nowadays honestly think that their 5-year or even 3-year strategy is going to last.

Nevertheless, many CEOs nowadays have forgotten that “… strategy has two equally important aspects, interrelated in life … The first of these is formulation; the second implementation … in real life, the processes of formulation and implementation are intertwined. Feedback from operations gives notice of changing environmental factors to which the strategy should be adjusted. The formulation of strategy is not finished when implementation begins. A business organization is always changing in response to its own makeup and past development. Similarly, it should be changing in response to changes in the larger systems in which it moves and in response to its success or failure in affecting its environment.” Andrews 1971 [note] Kenneth R. Andrews : The Concept of Corporate Strategy.  1971 Dow Jones-Irwin Inc.  Professor of Business Administration, Harvard University.[/note]

20 years later after Andrew’s book, i.e., 30 years ago, the management thinker Henry Mintzberg[note] Mintzberg, Henry, and James A. Waters. “Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent.” Readings in Strategic Management (1989).[/note] further discussed the difference between the intended strategy and the realized strategy created by responding to internal and external changes (see figure to the right). He argues that only a small proportion of the realized strategy is deliberate while the emergent part increases over time. 

Every part of running an organization has become more complex over the last thirty years, which means that organizations must continuously strategize to transform changes to emergent strategy.

In its simplest form that means that the strategy-process changes from a perceived linear stage-gate process to a continuous iterative strategizing  process as illustrated below:    

The first consequence of thinking like this is that a strategy is never new – it is rather an improvement of what was already there. If you think about it: Was there ever a new strategy except when the founders of the company first met ‘in the garage’? Whatever followed that day was adjustments to an existing strategy, organization, products, adjusted customer focus, etc. No matter how radical a new strategy seems, it always contains a continuation of an existing business.

Another consequence of replacing long strategy-periods with continuous strategizing becomes clear as strategy iterations are getting shorter, i.e., the strategy is adjusted more often due to changes/feedback: The people who’re strategizing must be closer to daily business to shorten the feedback loop. The easiest way to get the feedback into the strategy loop is to involve people from the organization who are in the feedback loops with customers, namely those who are in continuous contact with them directly or through IT-systems. 

The top-down multi-year-strategy-process was easy to understand, but it has become irrelevant.

The ambition of this article is to make it very concrete how strategies can become more like a living organism than a static document, and make it clearer how strategizing involving large parts of the organization continuously and rapidly can adapt the strategy relevantly. This should be an indispensable capability of every organization.

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Agile Teams must be Cross-functional AND Quad-coloured

Cross-functional teams are the ideal of Agile cross-functional teams because of their ability to deliver high value continuously. Dependencies outside the team are proven to be the number one impediment to value creation[note] [/note]. Today we don’t just define cross-functionality as developers with different skills: the DevOps movement has brought operations into the teams, and BizDevOps is a common term for bringing business into the teams as well. I am a big believer in fully cross-functional teams, and I believe they can take direct responsibility for business development[note] [/note].

However, it’s not enough that teams are cross-functional if we desire to create as much value as possible with the resources we have available. It’s not enough that they are efficient within their bubble (e.g. project); portfolio management should make sure that they have the optimal responsibility. We must avoid the vicious cycle of portfolio management. The teams should not only be able to do all the necessary tasks. They should have full lifecycle responsibility for the product; they are developing to maximise their value creation from a holistic perspective.

At the team level, this means that all teams should be Quad-coloured. This article will explain the concept of Quad-coloured teams, which is derived from The Portfolio Circle[note][/note]. If you’re not familiar with The Portfolio Circle, you should read that article first. 

This article will also make it clear how the Portfolio Circle and Quad-coloured teams have a significant impact on how we must think about Portfolio Management in the future.

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The Vicious Cycle of Project Portfolio Management

Project portfolio management is in most organisations all about the strategic projects. Naturally, the focus is on getting as many of these, mostly far too many, projects through the development organisation as possible and spending as little resources on minor functional improvements, upgrading systems/platforms, and fixing bugs as possible because that is considered less valuable. It is rarely understood that the starvation of these other tasks leads to less overall value and congestion of portfolio planning. In other words, strategic portfolio management is an enemy of itself: too many large strategic projects lead to starvation of other tasks, which again leads to even more strategic projects, more starvation, and a vicious cycle starts.

This article will introduce The Portfolio Circle, which is a more holistic understanding of portfolio management, and it will explain why this is a necessary approach for those organisations who want to maximise value for their customers as opposed to just executing single projects.

The goal in developing this model has been to reduce the complexity of portfolio management, and through deliberate simplicity, create a level of understanding that can contribute to a more holistic use of the resources available to create value for users and customers.

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Agile Planning Circles – the artifacts

This article is the second in a series about Agile Planning Circles, the way to drive strategic product development. The first, which is about the process, can be found here and should be read before this one to get the full benefit of the artifacts and tools layered on top of the process in this article.

One of the basic ideas of Agile Planning Cycles is that decisions about future features should be made in a direct feedback loop with the users because only here maximum value with the least effort can be created. Since the Product Owner (PO) and the team(s) are there, they should be able drive the process from Strategy (the red circle above), through Design Thinking (the blue circle) and Lean Startup experimentation (the green circle) to release and the end of the Agile circle (orange).

The Product Backlog as a Collection of Artifacts

How can the PO/team be the driving force through all the circles? It is not enough to bring their long ordered Product Backlog into discussions with different stakeholders to stay aligned across the various abstractions of the future of the product from corporate strategy to detailed User Stories.  Continue reading “Agile Planning Circles – the artifacts”

Agile Planning Circles

– or how to tie Product Strategy, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and Agile together.

Scrum is a simple and yet powerful framework, but one artifact, The Product Backlog, is too simplistic to capture the future of a complex product. Likewise, Refinement is insufficient to ensure the balance between the strategic direction and the deliveries on the short term.   As a consequence, it is hard to maximize the value for the users. The main reason is that a simple Product Backlog does not ensure enough transparency to engage stakeholders at different levels in collaboration around the value creation.

That said, I think the Product Backlog is a powerful concept. Enforcing an ordered list of product backlog items (PBIs) with higher prioritized PBIs refined to more detail at the top and less valuable coarse-grained PBI’s at the bottom and an understanding that the success criteria is not to deliver everything, are both significant steps forward compared to fixed scope projects. 

However, with today’s complex products the ordered list of PBI’s is either too small to be explicit about all the ideas that can generate the value or too large for anybody to consciously pick the most valuable ideas to develop. Pretending that all PBI’s (fine or coarse-grained) can be described in the same way and simply compared as such is an illusion.

So, how do we ensure that we are refining and developing the most valuable stuff if we have lost the overview?  Continue reading “Agile Planning Circles”

Agile is Organizational (Re-)Design

For many years, Agile has mainly been about the iterative and incremental process, a couple of new roles, etc. Over the last years, as Agile has increasingly become about companywide transitions[note]To understand why I consistently use the term agile transition where many other use agile transformation you should read: Forget All About Agile Transformations[/note] in large companies, scaling this process and roles has gotten a lot of attention. Agile has gone from what could be illustrated like in the diagram to the left[note][/note] to the one to the right[note][/note] on the figure below.

However, I have observed that while we try to deal with the increased organizational complexity by applying scaling frameworks, we still struggle with the obvious misalignment between agile and traditional company culture and complex IT-architectures. After agile transitions in large companies, we often still have:

  • very large projects with many people
  • people working on several projects at the same time
  • component teams handling a systems layer or a component determined by system architecture rather than user perspective
  • people in many locations working together
  • handovers from business to IT in the portfolio process
  • longer release cycles
  • etc

We call whatever it is we do Agile, even though it is not significantly more flexible or productive than what we had before. 

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Forget all about Agile Transformations

I have learned over many years of implementing Agile that words, and the images they create, are crucial for your success as change agents. To succeed, it is important that you can explain, what is going to happen, and how it is going to happen in a meaningful way.

I have been heading several of what we called agile transformations without deeper reflection on why we picked that word. I guess we just followed the majority of the agile community without considering the impact that it would have on our efforts to help the organizations to become more agile.

Which images appear in your imagination when you hear the word transformation?

The most used illustration of transformations regardless of kind, is the one from being a caterpillar to become a butterfly. Why’s that?

It visualizes a radical change in form, appearance[note][/note] etc, the result is one of the most beautiful animals on earth and most of us associate it with warm summer vacations. All the way through attractive. The butterfly is also much more agile and free than the slow caterpillar.

And no doubt: Becoming agile is a radical change for large corporations. It is not just employees put in teams doing Scrum events. It is a much more profound change of every part of the organization including the company culture. To describe the extend of the change required to be agile, the word transformation and the image of the butterfly is a good metaphor. The agility and beauty of the butterfly is also an attractive image for the end result of an agile transformation. But does it actually reflect the process of becoming agile?

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