Agile - Easy to understand and difficult to master
Last updated: 06.09.21
After Jana’s philosophical approach to the topic of agile in her last blog post, I remembered the impulse lecture I had created some time ago for an "Agile Release Train" of a large insurance company.
The starting point of the talk, and title of this blog post, is the thesis stated in previous Scrum Guides that Scrum (or agile methods in general) are easy to understand and difficult to master.
This is primarily because a successful agile transition requires a culture change in most organizations, otherwise the mechanisms that make agile methods valuable and effective will not work properly.
When agile methods are particularly effective
Agile methods have their origins in IT - and it is no coincidence that they were developed in this domain.
Product development in this industry in particular is highly complex.
A large system quickly involves a hundred or more people working together. Markets and technologies change at a breathtaking pace, and there are often hardware components involved in addition to the software, which is not trivial in itself.
You can think of it a bit like in the following picture. You have an idea of the goal of the project (the product vision), but you can't yet say exactly what the path to get there looks like and how the journey will develop.
In such a situation, agile methods play to their strengths, because what you can see is the beginning of the path and you can check at regular intervals whether you are still on the way to the goal. And if not? Then the goal is targeted, the plan re-adjusted, and the journey continues.
In science, and in agility, this procedure is called empiricism.
Achieving the goal the agile way with an empirical approach
So how does this empirical approach work, which can help us achieve our goals under great uncertainty and dynamism?
The following image from the "Guide to Evidence-Based Management" schematically depicts such a journey to a strategic goal; in IT product development this is the product vision.
With regard to the product vision and knowing the current state, a new idea is developed on how to approach the target, or at least an intermediate target, from here.
Based on this hypothesis, the next steps are planned, implemented and the results of this "experiment" are measured.
The measurement results are checked in a third step with regard to the idea and the goal. Now we know whether we are still on track and with this knowledge, we can move on to the next step.
The path to our target state is thus a sequence of more or less extensive experiments or iterations, whereby we check after each cycle whether we are moving in the right direction or if there is the necessity to adjust our plans.
Especially in Scrum this approach, the empirical process control, is very strongly rooted. The Scrum Guide 2020 mentions three pillars that enable this very effective approach.
Agile values as the basis of empiricism
And therein lies the part of agile that is difficult to master.
An agile transition is not the rollout of just another process. To be successful with agile methods and the inherent empirical approach, those involved must fill the three pillars described with life.
The basis for this is the internalization and living of agile values. Since these are very similar in the various methods, this blog post takes an exemplary look at the values described in the Scrum Guide and their influence on the empirical approach.
In order to work towards a common goal, this must be defined in the form of a product vision and communicated to all those involved.
All persons working together to achieve the goal must agree on the goal and support each other along the way.
This creates the sense of community necessary for empiricism and helps to align any decision with this common goal.
A product vision alone is not sufficient for the success of the project. Those involved must also work in a focused manner on its implementation.
In addition to the long-term goal, the focus should be on the next iteration or the next "experiment" so that it can be implemented quickly and conscientiously.
One pillar of empiricism - transparency - is based in particular on information being available quickly and easily so that the necessary decisions can be made. This requires a culture of openness, so that all necessary information is available, unbiased, at all times.
To achieve this openness and transparency, trust is a must among all participants. This is based on respectful interaction with each other and at all hierarchical levels, which in an agile environment tend to have small distances anyway.
Everyone involved in product development should always assume that they are all working to the best of their ability to achieve joint success.
And, hand on heart, who goes to work with the intention of causing as much harm as possible?
In addition to an open and respectful work environment and a goal-oriented and focused mode of operation, courage is an important characteristic for all members of an agile team – in particular, the courage to face challenges and make the decisions necessary for the successful implementation of the empirical approach.
What good are the best insights if they do not lead to actions that bring the team one step closer to the common goal.
If all these values are lived by those involved, a trusting and highly effective team will form almost automatically, capable of high performance and able to adapt its way of working to the circumstances at any time.
Unfortunately, culture change is one of the most difficult disciplines of organizational change because it is impossible to change other people's values. This is what makes agile so difficult to master. However, everyone can change themselves and that is within your control. So if you want to, you can actively support the shift to an agile way of working - what are you waiting for?
Empiricism is learning based on observation. For this, both the initial state and the result must be understood in the best possible way. An important basis for this is transparency about the approach, the process and its results.
Only through transparency across all areas can the results be correctly examined and evaluated.
It is precisely this inspection of the results that constitutes the second pillar of the empirical approach.
At regular intervals, all created artifacts and adapted processes must be honestly evaluated with regard to their contribution to the achievement of objectives.
This inspection forms the basis for further development and improvement cycles, enabling the necessary changes to stay on track.
But insight alone does not bring (positive) change. The third pillar starts at this point.
Any deviation on the way to the goal can have a negative impact on the success of the project, which is why the approach must be adapted as quickly as possible to not move even further away from the goal.
However, this only works if the people involved have the willingness, the required competencies and the corresponding courage to make such decisions.
A successful implementation of the agile, empirical approach thus requires an attentive and honest evaluation of the approach and team members who have the courage and the will to be transparent and make decisions, and of course an environment in which such behavior is not sanctioned but supported.