People: The Neglected Side of Agile
“Hi Kelly! Can we do an early beta launch of our product? Let’s move up the timelines by two weeks and launch it! This way we can call it more Agile too.”
Peter, an eager and driven manager with a lot of experience in managing teams of product managers and scrum masters, expected to engage Kelly in a discussion on being more Agile.
However, Kelly doesn’t fully agree, neither with the approach nor with terming it as being more “agile”.
“Peter, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to give your customers a product with incomplete user journeys. We prioritized just these three features for the launch and completing these will be the bare minimum we can achieve from our products. Shipping products with bad experiences will make the LEAST Agile sense.”, Kelly retaliated at Peter’s suggestion for reducing timelines.
Kelly is a seasoned product manager who, since joining the company four years ago, has expanded her portfolio to be the major contributor to company revenues. Working on this project for the last eight months, she has been trying desperately to upskill the cross-functional team to be more Agile.
In theory, this is the same direction that Peter and his organization are moving towards in efforts to increase innovation and experimentation. Peter, with his diverse experience, has successfully delivered multiple programs in both conventional and digital products for the company over the years.
But as far as this product launch is concerned, Kelly and Peter are on two very different pages about what Agile practice actually looks like:
“Kelly, this is not the Agile thinking the management is trying to preach. You’re talking about the same old waterfall mindset. Agile means, quick, very quick, and in doing so if things get a bit dirty, it shouldn’t matter. We already researched the product in depth and now I feel you are not confident about it anymore.”, replied Peter.
Kelly argues that the research has established the product need, but if shipped with incomplete information and journeys, they risk running into the first mover disadvantage. Trying to explain this to Peter, she responds that two weeks is not going to make a major difference. “I am not encouraging perfect and flawless products but at the least we should offer complete user journeys to our customers.”
By this point, Peter has already lost his patience. “Okay, here’s the deal. I have already promised the management that we will deliver the product earlier than planned. Either you commit to this or I can ask for someone else to deliver it.”, he threatens.
This whole situation sums up what the ’Agile Paradox’ looks like, and it’s not just Peter and Kelly who have fallen victim to it — this is exactly the dilemma that many organizations undergoing Agile Transformation face. Organizations, while being deeply focused on Agile processes, roadmaps, strategies and efficiency, tend to ignore the behavioral, softer side of Agile: The People.
And while companies think they’re practicing Agile, in reality, they’re far from understanding what Agile actually is, and what it is not.
What Agile Is Not
In principle, Agile is NOT the organizational ability to practice, but rather, it is the dire need of organizations to reduce uncertainty pertaining to customer preferences, technological innovations, changing market dynamics, regulatory dissonance, and, most importantly, the organizational ability & skillset to deliver in a less risky environment.
To enable organizations to deliver the most certain and viable product, the product is shipped in bits and pieces that are complete in themselves in serving one or more customers’ needs.
What Must Businesses do for a Successful Agile Transformation Strategy?
Agile shouldn’t just be undertaken as a strategic stint to overcome the ever-increasing costs of product development. It should be taken as an iterative approach where changes in processes are accommodated as you design the culture or the organizations, deriving behaviors that are consistent with agile practices, and defining structures that help with ‘Kaizen’s continuous improvement’ — or in other words, ‘Investing in People’.
How do lean-thinking people and Agile teams enable organizational agility?
Simply put, organizational agility can be achieved by taking these steps:
- Breaking down a large problem into smaller ones
- Then, through ‘Service Design’, identifying the most impactful ones to be solved for the customer
- Then using ‘System Design’ to identify the most impactful ones for the business
- Finally, delivering those smaller problems in an iterative manner, and continuously improving the ones already delivered in parallel to the newly identified ones.
Agile People Over Processes
Without investing in your people, you might be able to somehow implement Agile through process enforcement, but you won’t be practicing it in essence, and hence your Agile transformation strategy would not be sustainable.
Understanding that Agile is not just about Agile processes, but in fact it is about Agile people over processes, is the first step in the right direction if your organization is building an agile business strategy. But how do you truly implement and practice the Agile strategy framework within your culture and people?
These interconnected soft elements are the very basis for building a truly Agile organization:
- Unsolicited collaboration
- Strategic alignment
- Clarity in roles and communication
The core focus of an Agile strategy framework should be on giving autonomy to your people.
Your Agile adoption strategy can only be successful when smaller connected groups of people at the execution level of the organization are able to take decisions with just the right amount of strategic guidance. This includes all decisions pertaining to product design, research and development. So, while the managers still play the lead role, this role is principally to provide directions and guidelines and to check the work of the people — the executioners — by shifting accountability on them.
Hence, in a truly Agile set-up, the decision-making would be based on the expertise of the people, and regardless of the strategic ambition of your Agile work processes, this autonomy has to be given, in one way or another, to the people who are actually executing the job.
Many organizations that have successfully created guilds, tribes, and squads in efforts to enrich their culture with a more “collaborative” spirit are actually failing at sustaining these formal and informal groups.
The reason behind this is the lack of an environment to facilitate purpose-driven collaboration with autonomy in the hands of the people doing the work. Most of these organizations will create forums where people are tasked with sharing the same functional expertise at least once a month, but most of the time this doesn’t work unless there is a major push from the leaders.
If these collaboration forums, instead, become the center of cross-functional or functional value-addition, they’re much more likely to sustain and perform without a formal process dictating these interactions.
In the Agile way of working, such unsolicited collaboration that is others-driven rather than process-driven, will serve as a constant source of learning, equipping your people with the ability to make adjustments to their work as they carry out their tasks.
It is important to understand that Agile is not just the measure of the organizational capability to act fast, but also a primary driver for achieving strategic ambitions through innovation and experimentation. While keeping the main focus on strategic enablers, organizations can work swiftly towards validating and invalidating uncertainties to make sure the strategic objectives at the end of the day are crisp and clear.
When devising an agile strategy, all elements that are necessary to the success of the organization should be considered a part of the strategy. If we consider the element of collaboration discussed above, in an Agile framework, these collaborative forums would actually be showcasing how people are achieving business success and strategic goals of the organization at large, not simply chasing the assigned KPIs by their managers.
This is what makes your Agile transformation strategy sustainable, and such strategic alignment is what every organization must strive to implement within their teams.
Clarity in Roles and Communication
Communication in Agile teams is vital, especially when providing clarity across the roles, defining the responsibilities of the people, and ensuring that the people who are actually doing the job are well aware of their KPIs, their practices, and get enough time to work on their tasks.
Agile processes are focused towards removing impediments in processes — like duplication of efforts and siloism — while bringing clarity in the roles for each individual.
Such clarity can only be achieved autonomously through establishing a culture that is visited and evaluated unbiasedly at regular intervals. This Agile practice improves the use of communication channels for various organizational needs, focusing on the training and development of people and redefining formal and informal communication mediums and organizational structures to strengthen the agile-based culture.
Trust is an outcome of all the four variables discussed above, and it is definitely not built by top-down directions.
In fact, trust is built through collaboration that is unsolicited in nature, complimented by autonomy and clarity in the roles of the people towards the strategic ambitions of the organization. Once this trust is instilled and ingrained in the organization at different levels, agility is established.
While most organizations focus on Agile processes, tools, and education, there is another world of soft elements of Agile that focuses on people, their behaviors, communication formalities, trust, and servant leadership.
The leaders of the organization cannot ignore their people, and without instilling the right culture and values across your people, you cannot establish or implement a sustainable Agile transformation strategy. Trust is built when your people are not accountable to serve the leadership, but rather the overarching strategy of the business — and It is only when you set up such a high-trust team that you can truly be self-sustaining.
So, let’s be Agile, but not at the cost of people.