Scaling Agile with 5 action points

Rather than focusing on frameworks like Safe or Scrum@Scale, at Agile Amsterdam 2018, we concentrated on the agile mindset. Among different approaches and contexts, I noticed that several speakers made the same argument, so I have compiled these five action points to help scale agile.

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1. Set a clear vision and purpose

Kelly Waters, Founder & CEO at 101 Ways (considered the Most Valuable Agile Player in the UK in 2010) argues that a company must create the right conditions for agile success. These include:

  • Structure: Keep a stable team with as few dependencies as possible and keep the same team for the next project.
  • Technology: Use that which facilitates quick and constant delivery (i.e. code commits going straight to production server).
  • Leadership: Agile teams are autonomous, so they don’t need to be micromanaged. However, they need leaders to create focus and shared goals to make a Vision. As well as clear the path and define the purpose.

According to Waters, purpose is key and this should be reflected in your business. All employees must understand why they're doing what they're doing, and why anyone should care.

For Daniel Gebler, CTO at Picnic (the world’s fastest growing online supermarket), a company must establish common goals. Diana Russo, HR & Organizational Innovator, reinforces the importance of shared purpose and relevance: “Inspire others by repeatedly clarifying and emphasizing the shared purpose and what added value this creates for the customer, the environment, the society or even the entire world! This provides an anchor, a compass and strengthens a feeling of belonging.”

Eelco Rustenburg, Partner at Blinklane, recommends a simple pattern which emphasizes that leaders should define the goals and the purpose, but not define how people should do their jobs:

  • When asked Why: Be strong.
  • When asked What: Be clear.
  • When asked How: Be gone.
  • When asked Reflect: Be fair.

2. Try small experiments

Jeff Gothelf, co-author of Sense and Respond, underlines the importance of these scaling principles:

  • Work in short cycles.
  • Go and see.
  • Do less more often.

Jurriaan Kamer, organisation designer at 'The Ready', provides some simple rules for an agile way of working, among them:

  • Progress over Perfection.
  • Small Moves over Big Moves.
  • Experimentation over Planning.

Among other suggestions, Russo recommends experimentation and learning when building an agile organisation. She claims that when you encourage people to experiment, they are given space to innovate (the products, process, technologies). To decrease risks, waste and objections, Jeff Gothelf recommends small increments instead of big changes, to test and then amplify good patterns. People won’t feel encouraged to try if the company has a culture of blaming people for mistakes or creating a perfect plan before action.

Finally, Jurriaan Kamer recommends that, after presenting a new idea to the decision makers ask them: “Does this idea may cause harm or irrevocable damage to the company that make it doesn’t worth attempting?”

3. Hold regular retrospectives and improve

Teams that don’t work with an agile approach aren’t used to retrospective meetings; however, these can be accomplished by any department in a company, as they represent a moment to inspect the way you work “in regards to people, relationships, process, and tools” (Scrum Guide).

How are you doing? How can you improve?

Many speakers at the agile conference cite retrospective meetings and reinforced the importance of this event in the workflow. One speaker in particular, Daniel Gebler, emphasized the importance of identifying and working on "kaizen" which the Japanese define as "continuous improvement and continuous change." Retrospectives represent an opportunity to address this focus.

4. Have fun

Richard Sheridan, author of the book “Joy, Inc.” concludes that the period that he had most success in his career (making money and growing company hierarchy) was also the period that he was most unhappy. Years later, he and his team changed everything about how the company was run by removing the fear and ambiguity that typically make a workplace miserable. They made joy Menlo's explicit goal. When he presented how the company works, it appears he reduced complexity of the business environment with a very human approach that includes:

  • Pair programming.
  • Collaboration to create and change workspace constantly.
  • Babies and dogs allowed in office.
  • Encouraging verbal communication instead of digital communication.

Presenter Eelco Rustenburg cited the change in body behavior when people are under pressure and when then when they are having fun. Pressure doesn’t make things happen; it just causes stress, fear and confusion. Observing children playing you see they are focussed, committed, joyful, creative, and stress free, and all the while, doing a very good job.

Rustenburg emphasises that “It’s not about having fun after work, but having fun during work”.

5. Keep improving

In an agile environment, the constant is change. Amongst many other themes, such as improving transparency, collaboration, customer-centricity, and working in cycles, the conference focused on this reality. It is often expected that the simple act of establishing a process solves the problem, but new problems are constantly being created. An agile response is the most effective means of staying ahead of them. These are just five conditions necessary to beginning your journey in scaling agile, with the understanding that you will be constantly improving.

Something that is important for us all to consider, according to Kelly Waters, is that “doing agile won’t solve your problems, but solving your problems makes you more agile”.

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