Why organisation-wide Agile is still a work-in-progress

As Australian companies start to report the outcomes of organisation-wide Agile transformation journeys, their key learnings are now being debated.

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

Clearly, there are tales of caution and mistakes to avoid, but the question is how many of these are cross-applicable to others on similar journeys, versus how many apply only to the company involved and their specific set of circumstances?

Over the coming weeks, I plan to present an Australian state of organisation-wide Agile: what’s worked, what hasn’t and what we can take from user experiences so far.

To begin, it’s important to baseline the discussion.

The Agile approach owes its origins to software development. It was conceived by 17 developers at a US ski resort in February 2001, with the results of that meeting embodied in a manifesto.

One of the 17, Martin Fowler, wrote in 2006 that the manifesto “really captured the core of the ideas” from the initial meeting, though even at that stage he worried about the intent being misconstrued. “I’ve seen the terms incremental and iterative abused into all sorts of strange project shapes. I hope the manifesto will make clear what is and isn’t Agile.”

While what is and isn’t Agile is clear from a software development perspective, Agile has since transcended the world of software and is now considered an organisational change methodology.

The four core values and 12 supporting principles defined in the Agile manifesto have proven to be highly effective in the delivery of any business solution, not just for software development, and therefore have lent themselves to be used in organisation-wide transformations.

One of the leading adaptions of the agile manifesto now being used organisation-wide is the Scaled Agile Framework of SAFe.

Australian adopters of SAFe include Australia Post, Westpac and Telstra. Others, such as ANZ Banking Group, are deploying their own customised version of ‘scaled agile’ (which they are calling ‘New Ways of Working’).

Therein lies the complexity of organisation-wide Agile. There is no prescriptive way to approach it. Much depends on the company, its culture and its receptiveness to change – and this impacts the cross-applicability of lessons learned.

Further, Pure Agile may no longer be the specific end goal. Some argue that Agility is a spectrum and that few if any, organisations achieve full Agility. Most are instead destined to sit somewhere along that spectrum, perhaps combining Agile and non-Agile elements in the way they organisationally structure and function.

So, organisation-wide Agile is still very much a work-in-progress, complete with ambiguities and misconceptions of what it might involve, and no real way of knowing whether you’ve got things right (except in cases where it is clear that things have gone wrong). We’re changing this through the introduction of predictive measures of Agile success.

What is Agile?

In order to set a baseline for this discussion, it’s worth examining briefly the four core values of the Agile manifesto.

Agile is intentionally the opposite of the traditional waterfall approach to the development of business solutions where much time is spent upfront scoping requirements before work can begin on actually designing, building and maintaining a business solution (or in the case of software development, a piece of code).

One of the shortfalls of the waterfall approach is that by the time a working product is delivered produced, requirements have changed and therefore the outcome may be of limited utility. Agile changes this by reducing – but not limiting – the number of upfront requirements and design work, allowing a business solution to emerge over time to meet changing business requirements.

The core values of Agile are as follows:

Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools. This is easy to understand because the individuals that make up diverse teams understand business needs and are best positioned to drive delivery of a business solution.

Working Software (Solution) over Comprehensive Documentation.

This does not mean that documentation is abandoned altogether; rather it is limited to the minimum that is required to produce a business solution that delivers value to the customer in an incremental manner.

Customer Collaboration over Contract (Requirements) Negotiation.

The collaboration with the customer starts from the beginning and continues to the very end. The customer remains an integral part of the team throughout business solution delivery.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan.

The Agile approach recognises and embraces change, rather than fighting it. The focus is always on improvements that changes bring to the project and on added value to the business solution.

Over the past five years, a number of large Australian organisations have embarked on Scaled Agile journeys, with mixed results.