Agile transformation from the middle out

originally shared on Linkedin


I’ve spent the last few weeks looking for a new role and have now seen a great deal of job opportunities for scrum masters in a development department where the organisation is not agile, in varying degrees of organisational commitment from ambivalent to  ignorant.

Agile is not a mechanism for delivering software projects as I’ve seen quite a few times (I saw a recent role for a scrum project manager, I’m looking forward to discussing my feelings about that with the hiring manager) there seems to be so much confusion about agile and how much of the organisation it encompasses.

An agile business is agile across the entire organisation and without buy in from the most senior levels about why be agile there is a trend for development teams to adopt an agile framework which is then hampered by unclear direction provided to the PMO and quite often unclear interactions with the customer, these common issue’s then either lead to failure to deliver from the development team or require so many “acts of will” to complete projects they leave those piecing things together exhausted and demoralised.

Fixing this is a challenge I believe that agile and scrum in particular are trying to force organisations to focus on the delivery of a product and to do this requires end to end thinking, if your agile organisation is still working on “projects” I’m interested to understand how this is agile?

In trying to reconcile this I’ve been considering a blog post from Joaquim Torres

Joaquim Torres

A project is an endeavor with a clear definition of what needs to be delivered and the date when it needs to be delivered.

The customer increasingly expects the delivery of a product

“There’s no clear definition of what needs to be delivered. a product in the software development industry is any customer facing system. Since customer needs evolve over time and new technologies are made available, the customer expects that the software she uses evolves as well, hence there’s no clear definition of what needs to be delivered. There’s no use to have a one year plan of all features to be delivered in a certain sequence if requirements may change every month or even every week. A product development process needs to be adaptable to this change in customer needs”

“There’s no clear definition of the the date when it needs to be delivered.As customer expects that the software evolves in alignment with her needs, she doesn’t want a new version one year from now. She expects new features every month or even every week. For this reason, a product can not suffer the burden of the project management process. The product development process must be much leaner than the traditional project management process, because delivering new functionalities to a product is always the same project for each new feature: discovery, design, implementation, test, deploy. A project is used to manage occasional endeavors. The product development process is not an occasional endeavor. It’s a continuous process of improvement of the product through the delivery of new features.”

With so many agile software development departments in an organisation where they are provided details of the project with initial design by BA’s and delivery to QA teams we have at best iterative development and at worst a completely dysfunctional organisation unable to deliver  the customers requests, there will always be competition waiting in the wings who will deliver what the customer wants and will embrace new ways of working to do so, if the larger organisations can’t work out how to embrace this they’ll be chasing disruptive upstarts who are stealing their clients away at a rate of knots.

How then should this be addressed? We need to change how the entire organisation thinks and when we look at change in an organisation one of the best models is Kotters 8 steps to change.

In my opinion one of the most beneficial steps is to hire an agile coach or strong scrum master to assist your organisation as part of step 2 (and OK I did say I was looking for a new role). Do it right and you’ll have a strong person able to drive the changes through the rest of the organisation as long as you empower them and they are introduced as an agent for change.

Change is needed and it needs to be led from the top. The current trend of agile transformation from the middle out is deeply flawed and is doing agile a disservice. Well meaning passionate delivery managers, QA’s and developers can see the need to embrace change. They have succeeded in building an iterative software development model and delivery but they still have their hands tied by an insistence on projects delivered as business as usual. We need as agilists to focus on the PMO and sales groups ability to sell and prioritise backlog not projects and they need to be incentivised by strong leadership and clear vision.

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