From Good to Great: Agile Mindset

The next blog in the From Good to Great series which started by Don’t copy, find your own way and Radical transparency is focusing on the most important part of being Agile – Agile mindset. The mindset change is very difficult to describe. People who are far from being Agile are often saying “That’s what we are already doing, so what is this buzz about Agile about?” or “This will never work in reality, Agile is only for unicorns.” But it still exists so I thought I will share with you the picture how I see the Agile mindset change journey now.

Delivery

At the beginning of the Agile journey, it’s all about output. The delivery is the key. People care about efficiency, measuring velocity, estimating effort and complexity using Story points, T-shirt sizes, drawing Burndown charts. “How can we deliver faster?” is the most common question. People want to measure everything. They still believe the work which needs to be done can be analyzed and planned, so they create mini ‘stories’ aka business requirements with all the details specified, often using acceptance criteria to add more details. They also believe that we only need to follow the plan and deliver everything as described as soon as possible to be successful. Nice and simple world. But that’s not what Agile is about so you can freely forget most of the practices mentioned above. They might be better than some others from pure traditional world, but most of them have nothing to do with being Agile. It’s just ‘fake Agile’. On the other hand, most of the people couldn’t learn how to dance overnight, so a bit of ‘fake Agile’ might be a good step towards the mindset change. To be fair there are some aspect teams need to master at this level, mostly going back to the XP (Extreme Programming) like continuous integration, shared code, TDD, regular refactoring, and pair programming or mob programming, but that’s not enough to be agile.

Strategy

The more you apply the agility, and aspects like self-organization to raise empowerment, cross-functionality to be business value driven, and frequent product reviews to be customer-centric, the more your focus turn from delivery to the vision: Why are we doing it? For whom? What makes it different? What is the value? How are we going to change the world? People start to see that delivery is important, but just prerequisite. It’s not about delivering faster (but wrong things). It’s about maximizing value, which actually can be achieved by delivering less than before. The million-dollar question is how can we know this item brings value. The answer is surprisingly simple: Feedback. You can start with the implementation of Scrum. Short Sprints help teams to focus value delivery through defining Sprint Goals, cross-functional teams enable fast feedback from customers through regular Sprint Reviews, and good Product Owner brings decent business knowledge and creates a relationship with the customers so the feedback makes sense. Tools like User Stories and Story Mapping, which are by definition customer-centric value-driven (if used how they are supposed to be) are useful concepts to start a conversation about the business value. At this stage, people believe that if they have a good vision, and understand the customer well, they are going to be successful. Sounds great, the only weak point is that often that’s not enough in nowadays constantly changing the world.

Impact

Finally, the last stage of the Agile mindset change is acknowledging that we don’t know where the value is, we can’t analyze it, we can’t plan it. All we can do is to iterate and inspect and adapt. This stage is finally where we stop pretending we know where the value is, and start heavily experiment. Note, that 80% experiments must fail by definition, so you need to run very small tiny reality checks which are expected to be opportunities for learning. Teams learn fast from day to day failures, always looking for better ways, and when every experiment goes as they expected they take is as an indicator of lack of transparency, honesty and relevant feedback. All over radical transparency is their best friend, empowerment doesn’t stop at the at the team level but goes through the entire organization, and emergent leadership is the key engine to creativity and innovations. The delivery at this mindset stage is needed but is quite unimportant. It’s like walking. You would say you need to walk to get somewhere. But if you don’t know where the ‘somewhere’ is, walking no matter how fast only makes you tired. At this stage, it’s not even about a strategy that much as the strategy is emergent and changes depending on the feedback. It’s all about if the outcome created impact. If you know what do you want to achieve, you can measure if it’s happening. The sooner the better. Gojko Adzic and his Impact Mapping is a good tool to start. As he often shares in his stories you don’t implement functionality because you know how to implement it, nor because someone believes or say it is a good thing to be done. You do it to achieve your goal. If you have any evidence that the impact you need to achieve it is happening, you continue. If not, you stop and find another assumption to test. If you think about it, this is a very different way of prioritization, working, and thinking. That’s the real agile mindset. Once you embrace such a way of working, you are Agile.

I travel and speak at many conferences per year, and often to help them promote their event I draw a picture from some interesting talk. This time I decided to share Gojko’s keynote sketch from Agile Vilnius (#9 to attend this year 🙂  ) here as it is well aligned with my blog post and there is never too little visualization.

From Good to Great: Radical Transparency

I started the series From Good to Great by advising you to find your own way of being Agile. The next blog focuses on radical transparency. Let’s be truthful for a moment, how many organizations you worked for have real transparency, and how many are hiding information behind the teams or department walls, encourage by processes and claimed necessity of being compliant. Lack of transparency is a strong weapon which eventually can kill any Agile transformation as it makes collaboration and self-organization almost impossible. Lack of transparency is a great friend of hierarchical structures supported by fear and politics. “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position, and I’m safe being manager… All I need to do to be promoted is wait and make sure that no big mistake happens.”  Sound familiar?

Once you really mean it with your Agile journey, radical transparency is the key enabler. Together with the empowerment raising from the self-organization, it brings the energy and people start to take over the responsibility and ownership. They don’t wait until someone promote them to any function, they don’t wait for any orders. They take it over and collaborate on the solution.

Radical transparency is the key enabler of agility

Understand the Purpose

To understand the organizational vision and have a clear evolutionary purpose is crucial to successful collaboration and self-organization. In order to take over any initiative, people have to understand where are we heading, who are we, and who we don’t want to be. There is a very simple test. All you need to do is to take a random employee and ask him/her what is the vision/purpose/uniqueness of this organization. For simplicity, you can start with the executive leadership team to see if they didn’t lose the track of why they are there. 🙂 The good news is they usually know exactly what is the vision and can explain it in a very clear and engaging way. But when you do a cross-check across the organization, very likely there is a disconnect (usually several or even too many) which results in a very disruptive chaotic way of working. To fix it, storytelling is your best friend. Nothing can set up the stage better. Using serious of collaborative workshops like worldcafe, openspace, etc. involve people in co-creating the vision and help them to be part of it. Storytelling will set the directions. They need to own it, they need to believe it, they need to feel a need to be part of it. That’s the energy you need to begin. It brings innovative thinking, creativity, and empowerment, when people start offering help, ideas, and are ready to sacrifice personal goals in exchange for being part of something bigger.

Experiment, Inspect, Adapt

The next step is run experiments. At every level, you need to be transparent and openly share experiments at the early stage, and last but not least be ready to adapt through feedback. The downside is that before you learn how to collaborate and pass a test that you have the same understanding of the vision, it’s going to be very inefficient, and frustrating. “If we can just do it our way”, “they don’t understand it”, and “we know what to do so why shall we ask for feedback” people often say. But if you are strong enough and sustain the need for shortcut pre-baked solutions, very soon you see the results in higher collaboration, better understanding and some kind of harmony, which all over results in a high-performing environment.

Together with that, you need to run regular retrospectives and be transparent about the action steps. Share the backlog internally and externally. Simply there is no or very few information which needs to be hidden. If you believe you find any, try to double-check it by playing the “Five Why” and make sure you have a plan on what needs to be done so you can make it fully transparent.

Be Inclusive

The last necessary step on the radical transparency journey is to be inclusive. There is no such thing as a closed meeting. They shall be publicly visible with an open invitation so people can join if they are interested and have something to say. If there are many people, the facilitator can use some diverge and merge facilitation techniques, but no restriction shall be applied for the sake of efficiency.

It’s not about being fast without alignment, it’s about building alignment so you can be even faster.

Radical transparency is hard. You first need to have the courage to say things how they are, don’t be afraid to hear difficult feedback, have trust people will help you, and be ready to help others because after all, you all have the same vision, the same evolutionary purpose to achieve. It’s not easy but is a great investment and it will pay back in forming a highly adaptive (agile) high-performing organizations – the organizations which are formed to crack the challenges of the nowadays complex world.

From Good to Great: Don’t Copy, Find Your Own Way

Agile become part of our lives and you can see some sort of “Agile” in every other company, but still, many companies are failing to be Agile and understand the mindset. Ron Jeffries talks about “Dark Scrum” for years and I see more and more frustrated people around than ever. So why are the companies failing?

The most appealing way how to fail is to copy someone. When it worked somewhere else, why shall we take a hard time trying to invent it ourselves when we can just apply it. It usually starts with a big push from the top and has often wrong expectation from such a change. Being Agile is going to be hard, you might not see the results right away, and renaming a few roles and departments would not be enough.

Instead, you need to start from the bottom, get the experience from the teams, learn on the way through your own failures, do experiments, have the courage to do things differently. At some time, when you got used to this way of working at the team level and can imagine what needs to change in the business, systems architecture, culture, and organizational design, you might need to get ready to the next step – scaling.

Which to tell you the truth shall be called ‘descaling’ instead as in order to work, you need to turn the organization around and build it around the cross-functional teams who can actually deliver value end to end. Be business value driven, customer-centric. Hold on, yes, you need to understand what the business value actually is and think about the organizational purpose which is matching that value at the same time. Why are you here as an organization, and what would happen if you disappear from the market tomorrow? Would someone miss you? Are your employees living that purpose?

Having the evolutionary purpose is an enabler for Agile culture to finally settle down and stick. Only then, when you have a higher purpose, you can talk about truly being Agile and forming the Agile organization. How many ideal organizations I’ve seen? None. How many companies I’ve seen, being on this Agile journey? Hopefully enough to demonstrate that we can make it. Give us the light at the end of the tunnel that we can actually turn the organization around and make it a better place to be. Make work fun again. It’s not about being ideal, Agile is about inspecting and adapting, learning from experiments, learning from failures. So instead of looking for some ideal organizations to copy, how about if we start with ourselves, get the courage to do things differently. Be brave. Be Agile.