Growing Agile… Not Scaling!

Growing Agile… Not Scaling!

Growing Agile… Not Scaling!
I dislike the term scaling applied to agile, or better agility. The reason for my not liking it, is because it evokes metaphors which are bound to manufacturing such as: “scaling a plant”, “scaling production” and all the rest that can evoke assembling and building things.

I like to think about agility as something which goes far beyond building and assembling and also far beyond technology. I won’t spend too many words in arguing about the fact that Software Development has nothing to do with any “Production” related metaphors, but allow me to mention a couple of very common dysfunctions:

Now back to the point, given the aforementioned misunderstanding, our industry is plagued by multiple attempts of “scaling” agile, with a very strong – almost unique – focus on delivering software. We can ask a wide number of people familiar with agility, and I am pretty sure that we would get a wide spectrum of answers on the matter. I am confident though, that the majority of them would agree that what makes an agile team successful is not the “process” nor the “tools” but rather the way people developed an effective level of interaction with each other. Inspecting and adapting both the work done and the way it is done, seems to be the core of continuous improvement, combined with the usage of metrics. So if we were to focus only on “scaling” the practices, processes and tools and not on the mindset and culture, I am pretty sure we would not achieve long term success, sustainable pace and most of all, people satisfaction and engagement!

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I like to use the term growing agility, rather than “scaling” because connects better with the fact that developing agility within an organization has more to do with an organic system, rather than with a mechanical one. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, then we have to recognize that the way towards agility, requires addressing culture and mindset as first class citizens. Over the past years, I have came to particularly appreciate the impact of culture on the effectiveness with which human systems operate. So growing agile, means both focusing on culture, and on co-evolution of practices and tools. In every high performing environment I had the pleasure to work, people were having control of values, principles, practices and tools.

While changing culture is a challenge for every organization, there are approaches and tools which can help understanding where one stands, and also designing together in which direction to evolve to create the right context to support the current strategy. Only in this way, changes will stick, and will be owned by the people within the organization instead of by the institution governing it. Already achieving an agreement on where the organizational culture stands, can provide incredible insights on solving issues, and surely strengthens the alignment.

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For example with one of the companies I am working with at the moment, the leadership team took the cultural matter very seriously, and decided to make it explicit, because they have realized that it was the only possible way to make sure everyone would feel the same about moving forward. We started by “assessing” the current culture, which requires courage, and quite some structured conversations. We have used the Competing Value Framework (CVF) this time, but could have been any other model. Conversation between leadership team and other opinion makers, through the sharing of stories from the company past, and exchanging of opinions we came to the point of having agreed on a cultural profile. This is the first step, the second one is to understand based on the strategic direction the company is taking, what would be the best cultural context to support it. Also given that companies tend to identify themselves pretty strongly with one culture or another, it has been very important to identify also what to keep from the existing culture, that would provide value also for the future.

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