Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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3 Signs You're Not Agile

Earlier this year, Ron Jeffries, an original signatory of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, called for software developers to abandon agile. He said, “Too commonly, the ‘Agile’ approach a team uses has been imposed. Larger-scale ‘Agile’ methods appear actually to recommend imposition of process. These ‘so-called’ methods are pitched to the enterprise, and the enterprise is expected to ‘install’ them, or ‘roll them out'.”

It’s a statement echoed by another signatory, Alistair Cockburn. At a conference in 2015 he was asked whether organisations should get rid of project managers and replace them with scrum masters, his response was, “If organisations think that agile is a way of getting rid of project managers, they’re wrong. We need good people more than ever.”

Even though it’s three years old, I love this quote as it’s the very essence of what agile is all about. It’s not about changing the name of something or someone, it’s about working together more effectively to deliver value more quickly to the customer. In the rush to implement the latest method (a culture shortcut which almost never works in isolation) organisations have lost sight of this.

The original manifesto (stick with me here...) called on organisations to “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” It also said that, “Agile Methodologists are really about ‘mushy stuff’—about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about ‘people as our most important asset’ but actually ‘acts’ as if people were the most important.”

‘Acts as if people were the most important.’

That means regularly displaying behaviours such as empathy, respect, trust, courage, generosity and honesty. It means keeping promises and making sure people are recognised for their efforts. It’s about having a working environment that is diverse and inclusive by design and where people know that they are empowered as soon as they walk through the door to be able to act without fear.

This is what it means to be agile and if you or your organisation is doing any of the following three things, then you are most definitely not there yet.

1. Too many/badly run meetings

When did filling days with meetings become an ok thing to do? Who decided one day that the very best way to be productive was to fill every hour of every day with structures designed to get in the way of getting things done? Now, before you start telling me that meetings can be effective, let me say that I agree, with the caveat ‘when they’re done well’. But how often does that happen? 

Meetings are an hour or 30 minutes because people can’t be bothered to change the default settings in Outlook. These meetings then collide with others starting at the same time meaning that most people are late (or that the meeting starts late) and, hey presto, productive time is lost. Stand up meetings that start late and run over time are just as bad. Organisations that truly embrace faster value delivery, realise that in order to do so, the number of meetings held has to be drastically reduced.

TIP: If you want to be more agile, then you need to free up more time for people to do work and then when you do meet, you need to be respectful of the time you have and get the decisions made so everyone can move on.

2. Poor performance and behaviours are tolerated

Let’s face it, there are some people who seem to make a career out of not doing their job. But it’s not these people that I question. It’s the people who are paid more money to motivate and inspire them to do good work. And when – despite their best efforts over an extended period – they’re not able to do so, to follow the (often onerous) process to make sure they understand that this simply isn’t good enough. 

Sending poor performers on a Scrum training course or making them part of a ‘New Ways of Working’ er, ‘Working Group’ (of NoWWG for short #notshort) won’t work. Neither will changing their KPIs to ensure that they’ll probably miss out on an annual bonus. As long as there is no consequence for their behaviour, then they will continue to underperform and hold the organisation back. The customer won’t receive value any more quickly and delivery of projects and services will be as inflexible as it always has been.

TIP: Get to the root cause of their issues by using empathy and active listening. In my experience, people often underperform because managers simply don’t know how to communicate or set expectation properly. Agree on a set of behaviours and a performance standard, then coach, mentor and track performance to these on a regular basis.

3. No time for innovation

In his book Agile Project Management, Jim Highsmith said, “Innovation cannot be guaranteed by some deterministic process – innovation is the result of an emergent process, one in which the interaction of individuals with creative ideas results in something new and different.”

An emergent process is one that requires time, a mindset that constantly asks the question, ‘Could I/we do this differently?’ and a culture that supports courageous action. This action exists at a personal level as well as an organisation one. If you’re not looking to stretch your own thinking outside the office, then it’s unlikely to happen in the office either. In fact, in the office, there are more excuses for not doing it, than there are outside.

Innovation is everybody’s job. It doesn’t belong in a hub to a special group of people, nor is it one person’s job because they happen to have it on their business cards. Everyone has the responsibility to grow and improve an organisation, from the CEO to a new member of staff, one hour into their new role.

TIP: Block time out of your calendar every week to spend thinking differently about an issue that you face or an idea that you’d like to explore. Change your environment, only use tech to add value and bring a different mindset to it. You might just change things for the better.

Of course, there are more than three signs that an organisation is not acting and behaving in an agile way. What have you seen and how can it be addressed?