One of the aspects of an agile approach that is much-loved by experienced practitioners is that of self-directed teams. Essentially, the team members understand what has to be done, and make plans to actually get it done, setting the direction, pace, delivery by themselves. This is great when we have a fairly small organization that responds quickly to change, and in those situations where the team has autonomy over its entire work.
But how does this scale? Well, it only scales to a point, which is why we need managers. Consider a large corporation, maybe a bank. It has a responsibility to its shareholders, customers, employees, and regulators, and each of these groups has a specific set of expectations – often expectations that are in conflict with other stakeholders. So who decides what projects should be worked on, in what order, and when? Well, managers do. And who decides how they should be staffed? Again, managers do. Why? because a large organization needs a formalized body – management – to standardize its work, or at least its approach to work. The alternative is anarchy – which may suit a start-up, but not an older, established, large business. And we have decided managers are the people who should provide this formalization, and ensure everyone follows a standard path.
“We need to change our culture” – how many times have I heard that when I am working with organizations trying to adopt an agile approach? Well, I hear it almost every time I give one of our workshops, and it has driven me to change the way I start each workshop by trying to discover the culture of this particular organization, and what it might mean to the workshop participants. In this way I am able to tailor each workshop a little to be as effective as possible for the participants, and have the best effect upon their organization.
In his book “The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Culture Work”, William Schneider introduces a simple, four-part framework for organizational cultures. While most organizations have multiples types of culture, there tends to be one culture-type – “the way things get done around here” – that influences the vast majority of people working in that organization. Understanding this culture serves as an excellent guidepost to determine if adopting agile will be successful, marginal, or a failure.
Just how do organizations adopt agile in their development process? And why?
I have seen both top-down and bottom-up adoptions, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. But in either scenario, most of the energy goes into making sure the technical folks (developers, analysts, testers, operations, etc.), yet we tend to pay little or no attention to the leaders of the organization, especially at the executive level. Yet these are the very people who can encourage and embrace the agile adoption, or reject it. I see a gap here, don’t you?
After a lot of thought, and working with executives from a number of different organizations, I realized that there are, in fact, two problems that executives need help with:
- Understanding the basic framework of the agile approach, and taking actions to support agile adoption
- After using agile for a while, spreading its approaches, practices, and underlying philosophies into the rest of the organization.
In short-hand, I refer to this as “doing agile” and “being agile”.