Agile Beyond Software – Agile for the Whole Organization

In my last few Agile Basics classes, I have noticed a welcome trend: People with roles outside of IT are attending classes in conjunction with the development teams. People from sales, marketing, accounting, HR and even executive branches have started to recognize that learning about Agile has a positive impact on the whole organization.

Agilists have long held that Agile transformations require buy-in from entire organizations, not just the IT and development teams which have adopted the most popular Agile framework, Scrum. To understand why this is, it is important to go back to Agile’s roots and understand what exactly Agile means.

As the Agile movement has expanded, misuse of the word itself has become common. It is easy to say, “We want our company to be more agile.” This stands to reason. No one wins over shareholders by saying something like, “We prefer to remain beholden to our processes and plan-driven approaches instead of focusing on innovation and high-quality delivery.” Typically then, an executive will decide the business needs to “be Agile” so that the company appears hip and lean to shareholders, and leaves it to the rest of the business to figure out what Agile is and how they’re supposed to do it.

Let’s go ahead and clear up a couple of common misconceptions:

First, Agile is a set a values, not a process. This is a critical point to understand, so I’ll go ahead and say it again: Agile is a set of values, not a process. There are Agile practices that enable Agile values to take hold. Agile does not prescribe any specific practices, but instead presents Agile values through the Agile Manifesto and the 12 Agile Principles (http://agilemanifesto.org/). An Agile organization adheres to these values and probably uses a combination of Agile frameworks such as Scrum and XP to foster an Agile environment. Agile prescribes human interaction, complete pieces of working product, collaboration and response to change over all the ways we’re used to documenting, planning and channeling product development by skill set and development cycle. Agilists understand that product development comes with inherent uncertainty and inevitable change to the original plan. Agilists welcome change and consider uncertainty a platform for creativity.

Second, Agile exposes organizational dysfunction, but it doesn’t tell you how to solve the problem. Agile practices can often prompt more questions than answers. Agile practices do not pretend to be silver bullet solutions. They are simply methods people have used to successfully ferret out organizational waste, technical debt and micro-management, while also focusing on high-quality, high-value delivery.
Organizations that have done the hard work of examining and adapting their internal structures to adhere to Agile values have had great success with higher quality, more frequent delivery. Organizations that have expected ingrained business processes to stay in place while also working toward a more Agile environment have not.

A problem many organizations are running into is that their Agile development teams are delivering high-quality product at such a rapid pace that the organization’s non-Agile teams cannot keep up. As an example, take the following scenario: Marketing is working on web pages based on the original, loose plan and does not know the development team was able to get more features into the release than originally anticipated. Legal has no idea the License Agreement needs an addendum as a result of the development team’s use of some new open source tools. Salespeople have been telling customers about the planned features for the new upgrade, but do not realize they could be selling even more desirable features to clients.

What is the point of delivering high-quality, high-value product based on consistent customer/stakeholder feedback if the parts of the organization responsible for marketing and selling the product rely on outdated and demonstrably false estimations and plans? Having Agile development teams working in conjunction with Agile marketing and sales teams is the next logical step for many companies in the midst of Agile transformations. For a business to reach its full potential as an Agile organization, it must jettison its outmoded business practices and bring all of its teams into the fold of Agile values.

Laura Howley

Laura Howley is a Certified ScrumMaster with the Scrum Alliance and has been actively practicing Scrum for over four years. At CollabNet, she works with a diverse range of clients from large semi-conductors to small web start-ups, helping them move from traditional workflows to more agile practices. She comes from a project management background at web startups and both project management and sales at the fortune 100 bank, JPMorganChase. She was introduced to Scrum at Danube, which was acquired by CollabNet. Danube incorporated the principles and practices of Scrum into all elements of its operations. Learning from the practices that were so successful at Danube, Laura now helps other organizations transform their workplaces into fully agile operations.

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