Three things that matter when embarking on an Agile transformation

When it comes to transforming an organization to Agile, it is far too easy to get caught up in the details of implementing a methodology and its associated practices and lose the focus on realizing desired Business value, i.e., to lose sight of what you are trying to achieve and why. The goal of a transformation is never to implement Scrum, or XP, or SAFe, or what have you; rather, the goal is always to get better at achieving the value that matters to the organization. Having well-defined outcomes and a plan for achieving those outcomes is key to keeping the transformation effort on track.

Simply training employees on the mechanics and implementing the recommended practices often does not lead to, nor guarantee, the desired business results. In our experience helping companies transition to Agile at scale, we’ve found that they struggle to achieve desired outcomes when they start out focusing on the “how” and fail to appreciate the “whys” that underlie the practices. These organizations frequently do not understand which bits can be adapted, which can be jettisoned, and which practices and tools could enhance the process. As Al Shalloway, CEO of Net Objectives says, “Practices are designed to solve a problem in a context. When challenges occur, look at the intention of the practice. Then, using principles, look for an alternative to the practice.” To that, I would add, “Finally, make your decision about what to do next, but define your expected outcomes before starting your experiment (or implementing the countermeasure).”

Nearly all organizations want to improve business measures that matter and the best way to do so is to improve flow, quality, and value delivered. When we reduce the principles of Agile and Lean to their essence, we discover that the goal is to focus on, and continuously improve, the effective, efficient, and predictable delivery of customer value — development teams strive to delivery more-and-more value with minimal waste; managers in turn seek to create an environment of dependable, unimpeded, measurable flow. Success, therefore, requires a focus on three critical aspects: flow, quality, value. These are not one-time improvements, but a never-ending series of small improvements.

1. Focus on: Flow and Predictability

Flow is the regular, never-ceasing, forward progress of products, services, and information to the customer, who might be an external client or user or an internal stakeholder. It is work moving from one step to the next, within the value stream, without delay or rework. Improving flow often involves removing roadblocks that delay or prevent the continual forward motion and throughput of work.

Closely related to flow is predictability. Predictability implies the ability to accurately answer, “When will it be done?” Making your processes more predictable and being able to reliably and consistently meet delivery commitments is the first step in building trust with business partners, stakeholders, and customers. However, before worrying about predictability, you first need to ensure that there is complete transparency and visibility so that managers and team members can see what is really happening in order to make informed decisions.

Without visibility, it is nearly impossible to make and keep commitments with any degree of certainty. Attempts to improve flow simply become shots in the dark and it is not possible to see and evaluate the effects.

The last aspect of flow is the notion that people are engaged and productive when there is a match between their skills and the complexity of work required — lack of required skills can lead to fear and stress; mundane work to ennui. Self-organizing teams should keep this in mind when allocating or self-selecting items to work on.

2. Focus on: Quality

Quality is assessed by the customer. By definition, the quality of a product or service is the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfill a need or expectation that is clearly stated, generally implied, or obligatory. It is more than simply being free of defects. Quality involves meeting customer expectations. And yes, some of these expectations can be subjective. Interestingly, performing higher does not necessarily mean higher quality if the buyer balks at buying the unasked for add-on functionality.

It is a common misconception to believe that you have to proceed slowly in order to produce quality work. But, speed and quality are not dichotomous options and they should go hand-in-hand — you can get better quality and a higher rate of work completion. Companies that invest in automation and in preventing defects (vs. finding them at the end of the development cycle) find that quality does not have to be compromised for speed. Quality affects flow. When work is not done right the first time, when quality is not built into the process (vs. checking for defects after the fact), and when the product or service does not meet the customer’s need, we end up with rework and defects that have to be addressed. This unanticipated rework makes it harder to be predictable, impedes flow, and delays completion of work. Speed and quality are not mutually exclusive.

3. Focus on: Value

Value can be a fuzzy concept. It can be viewed from different perspectives: customer, business/organizational, operational, and individual and each will have likely have a different understanding of value. Imagine how each perspective might think about a “pizza delivery business.”

  • A pizza maker competing with other pizza makers for a single job at a local pizza store
  • The manager of the pizza shop
  • The owner of the pizza shop to whom the manager reports daily or weekly
  • The customer who ordered a couple of pizzas to be delivered to her home

What is perceived to be “value” by one role may not be by another.

Some companies make the mistake of losing sight of who they are building the product or service for — delivering business/organizational value is important but being uninformed about what customers’ value is extremely dangerous. To complicate matters, value is not constant — things can become more or less valuable over time depending on the circumstance.

Once you’ve agreed on what value means and who is being provided that value, you need to define the minimal cohesive increments of functionality that together will meet the needs of the target customer by either solving a problem she has or by making her work easier, better, or faster. To do this, you have to take the time to understand your customers and stakeholders, their problems, their needs, their actual usage of the product or service. This practice of customer discovery is deceptively simple: form hypotheses about the product, about the problem that your product solves, and test these hypotheses with those who could be your potential customers to verify, iterate or exit. An “I already know what customers want” attitude, based on their perception of market opportunity, is a good indicator of failure. Additionally, you need to verify or refute your product’s value proposition, its sales roadmap, business model, etc. After all, you don’t want to develop something if it isn’t worth it to your enterprise.

Lastly, defining a clear value metric across all the portfolio of work being considered makes it possible to sequence the order of implementation of the minimal cohesive increments based on Cost of Delay or another mechanism.

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