Agility. You will find the term in job descriptions, about us pages, or highlights of corporate blogs. It is everywhere, but, as evidenced by continual engagements of agile consultants and coaches, still has yet to be understood. A lot of companies are able to use the term in their jargon and point to various benefits of agile methodologies, but they only partially subscribe to what implementing agile practices actually mean. If a company really fully endorses agile precepts, you would see a network of teams producing valuable increments of output that delight their customer base. Not only that, you would see teams continually improving and changing over time. Keep in mind, these changes would not be in who is on the team, but in how the team works.
An Agility Thought Experiment
Suppose you were able to visit ten different companies that self-report as “agile” companies. What would you look for? How, as an independent observer, would you affirm a company’s claim to use agile principles? If there was a Kanban board, would that determine a company’s agility? How about a regular cadence of releases, if the company were a software company? What about if they did everything according to scrum?
If you were looking for any of these things to determine a company’s adoption of agile principles, you missed some of the most agile companies in business. Why? Because looking at these indicators only focus on tools, and processes. What really matters is people. I have seen a number of different companies with Kanban boards, stand up meetings, information radiators galore, but had yet to truly yield an agile mindset within these companies.
So, if different ceremonies and tools are not the right metric, how does one evaluate a company’s agility?
The Summation of Business Agility
First and foremost, the ability to collaborate is what cultivates and agile mindset. People need to talk to other people. That’s it. If your team is solely IT people working together, you are stunting your business agility. Moreover, if you only talk to business people at one point in the process then come back with a result of that discussion weeks later, you are doing something wrong. Also, if you have people that are too busy collaborate on solutions or better ways about doing things, mediocrity is your destination.
Therefore, measure how well people are collaborating. Collaboration requires shared spaces, whiteboards, people within distance to hold a conversation without having to move floors or buildings. Having a stand up meeting is not necessarily collaboration. Dictating status updates isn’t collaboration. Collaboration is born of communication, and communication is more than just speaking in a one-directional manner.
Learning & Improvement
A second key aspect of agility is learning. A result of effective communication is that people learn. Individuals should be getting better in their own work, but teams should also be getting better as well. Improvement indicates learning. Moreover, teams that experiment also learn. Not every solution that is released, will be a success. At times, a solution that was born of collaboration were made on false assumptions. But, if a team is actually learning, the “failed” experiments will later result in better solutions. This assumes that the team or individuals have time to reflect on what has been done. Unfortunately, a lot of the reflective time (some may call it a retrospective) is the first thing to go when time and budgets are tight. Moreover, retrospectives have a tendency to be done poorly which results in hurt feelings rather than constructive feedback.
What results from experimentation and feedback, also known as learning, is the ability to improve over time. Teams should continually get better over time. They should be empowered to chart their own course. If you don’t fully trust a team with the results of their actions, there is no incentive for improvement. You will have teams that form, storm, and then consistently under-perform (as measured against their potential).
So, the next time you are trying to assess the agility of a company, you are better off observing how they work. Agility, in the form of meaningful collaboration, continuous learning and improvement is the true measure of a company’s ability. It isn’t how well they’ve implemented scrum or any other framework out there. A good article to contrast agile mandates versus agile mindsets is here. I highly recommend reading it.
For more information of true agility, read through the three laws of agile series here.