Why CTOs need to stop being overly-apologetic about Agile

May 17, 2019

Article by Certus3 managing partner Michael Devlin and Certus3 managing partner Simo Popovac.

Australia has more than its share of companies on organisation-wide Agile transformation journeys.

No one goes into these initiatives underestimating the complexity involved, but few companies emerge from the journey independently – without needing to call in reinforcements.

That’s because Agile at scale has its share of purists, models, misconceptions, and ambiguity. All are capable of sending an organisation-wide Agile transformation off the rails.

Many organisations are now dealing with the consequences of making the transition to Agile. How do I know if I’m doing Agile right? How can I develop maturity as the transformation progresses? These are just some of the questions we see Australian organisations asking themselves.

Some questioning of process and practice is healthy and is important to the iterative development of new ways of working inside of an organisation.

All too often, however, Agile projects in Australia are closely modelled on what has worked elsewhere. For many, it means adopting the so-called Spotify model for Agile organisational design – a way of arranging workers into cross-functional teams.

It’s often not the case that one size fits all. No one Agile playbook works.

Therefore, success is really about having the confidence to implement a flavour of Agile specific to your own organisational constraints and needs. It’s also about recognising and pushing back against other “needs” that might get bundled up in Agile transformations, but which do not necessarily fit with your own.

There’s no need for Agile purity

Agile ways of working do not exist only in a pure form.

Author Allan Kelly argues that Agility is a spectrum, with strict Waterfall at one end and Pure Agile at the other. The extremities are “sparsely populated”, Kelly says. Most companies land on the spectrum somewhere between these two extremes.

Oftentimes, companies are apologetic that the approach they’re taking is not Pure Agile. Arguably, however, those that strike the right balance are simply demonstrating a greater degree of maturity in their approach to Agile.

Agile maturity is often underestimated – or perhaps companies are overly critical of their own maturity, particularly where the end goal is defined in Pure Agile terms.

An annual ‘state of Agile’ survey last year found 84 per cent of organisations identify as being “at or below a ‘still maturing’ level when it comes to Agile.

Some organisations may be hard markers of their own Agile progress and performance. Positives for organisational and innovation culture are still possible without an end goal of Pure Agile.

But the high percentage also shows that not every company is as mature as you might think. Though it may seem competitors or early adopters have it together, many are still afflicted by the same core doubts about whether or not they are doing Agile right.

Of course, running in a hybrid fashion, potentially with different projects and parts of the organisation at different levels of Agile maturity simultaneously, comes with its own set of challenges. These include the extent to which it is possible to maintain a level of consistency, control and planning between these teams or programs of work. That may or may not be simpler than bringing an entire organisation up to the same bar of Agile maturity at once.

The decision is best determined by individual company circumstances.

Deconstructing org structure

Another maturity misconception is that people and programs of work naturally function better and faster in an Agile model.

Being performant is overtly promoted in Agile.

Agile relies on capable skilled individuals working in reasonably autonomous teams, often colocated with one another. Individuals and teams in Agile environments are seen as being well-connected, well-formed, and high-performing, with a greater ability to deal with change and to tolerate and respond to fluctuating levels of risk.

But high-performing teams exist outside of Pure Agile organisations as well. The same or similar results can be achieved in companies with a waterfall or hybrid organisational structures.

A related misconception is that self-governance reduces the need for external assurance. That is, a high-performing team does not need to track or measure its performance independently because of its inherent performance characteristics.

This notion is challenged, we would argue, by the spectrum of possible paths to agility and the lack of a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving success. Independent assurance is just that – a confirmation that things are, indeed, still on track.