Monday, May 14, 2012

10 Things to make you Agile adoption successfull

One of the closing slides in my Agile Foundations course includes a quote from Ken Schwaber saying that only 30% of teams who attempt Scrum will be successful. What I find interesting about this quote is that it aligns with many other change management studies. Researchers like Harvard Professor John Kotter regularly say 70% of major change efforts fail.

On his blog Ken Schwaber says he doesn’t remember this and instead suggests only 30% will become “excellent development organizations.”

Either way, the prognosis isn’t optimistic. A few months ago, at the end of the course, someone asked the obvious question, a question so obvious I wonder why nobody has asked it before: “What can we do to ensure that we are in the 30% who make it?”

Given that I had the Managing Director, the Director of Technology and most of the technology team in the room it was an excellent opportunity to set the change agenda. And I fluffed it, despite having written a book on the subject I didn’t have a quick answer to hand. But it set me thinking: “What are the 10 things a team can do to make Agile (any flavour) stick?”

Here then is that list, the team in the room will recognise the first three, it was after that that I had to think.

1) Use a physical board: over the last year I have become convinced that the single biggest difference between teams which successfully adopt Agile working and those who try, fail, or end up stuck is the use of an actual physical board.

I know some teams find this difficult, I know some teams are distributed, I know there is technology out there to do this for you but I stand by my point. If you can make it physical, in a place where many, if not all, can see, then you are more likely to succeed.

2) Start collecting and using statistics and other data: velocity, burn-down, bugs identified, bugs logged, etc. etc. Metrics have a bad name in software development - rightly in most cases. But that only means that have been badly collected, managed and used, it doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. At the very least measure your velocity and create a burn-down chart or cumulative flow diagram of the work to do or arising.

3) Engage a coach/consultant: at the risk of being accused of trying to make work for myself I should say you can adopt Agile all by yourself. You can read the books, you can experiment, you can go on courses. But doing it without help makes the whole process slower and increases the risk that you won’t make it to the 30%.

Personally, I find it difficult to know just how an Agile Coach differs from an Agile Consultant. What ever you call the role you want someone who can:
  • Provide advice on which practices and process to adopt, and how to best adopt them
  • Offer examples of what they have seen work, and not work, elsewhere, and how other team tackle similar issues
  • Observe, examine, query and challenge your thinking on what you are doing
  • Challenge your thinking and point out opportunities and idea that you haven’t seen yet
You may need to work with multiple advisors since few will be able to cover all process, practice, technology, product and strategy bases. On very large team it might be worth having full-time consultants although the model I have had most success with is light-touch coaching in tandem with a pull-change model (below).

I don’t believe such an advisor needs to be full time. I practise, and have written before about, light-touch Agile coaching, in this model I return to companies at intervals, perhaps monthly, perhaps more frequently, sometimes less frequently and continue the discussion.

4) Action over talking: action speaks louder than words, until you start trying to do Agile you can’t foresee all the issues and questions which will arise. The longer you spend talking about doing it, and not actually doing it, the more it anticipation will build up, the more more it will look like jus another management fad.

By all means talk about it, plan a bit but there is no real substitute for just getting stuck in and doing it. In particular do not spend your time agonising over whether to do XP or Scrum, or Lean or FDD, or DSDM or Kanban. They are all pretty much of a muchness and you will end you up crafting your own hybrid anyway.

Likewise, discusses a few weeks ago: don’t waste your time looking for evidence, make your own.

Planning your way to Agile is anathema, just do it - JFDI.

5) Give everyone training and start group wide discussions: teams don’t get to be Agile by management deeming “thou shalt be Agile” - although plenty of managers and team leaders have tried the approach. Reading books works for some people but most books go unread, or the words go in one eye and out the other.

If you want to be Agile then invest in taking the time to explain to people what it is. But don’t stop there, make time for people to talk about what Agile is to them, what they like, don’t like, will do, won’t do. Agile is a team sport and unless the team have a shared understanding they will be playing different games.

6) Enthuse, Pull, don’t Push: Anyone who has worked around companies for a few years will have seen management pushing the latest change initiative: ISO 9000, Sig Sigma, CRM, ERP, etc. etc. Someone dreams up these ideas and then a change machine sets about pushing them out.

Apply a lean principle: Pull, don’t push. Forbid the words “change management.” Enthuse individuals and teams, have them ask for Agile. And when they ask give them the help and support they need. This works at the individual level, at the team level, at the company level.

If you are in management this means you need to engineer a pincer movement: you want enthusiasm for change coming from the bottom up to meet your support coming top down. Introducing Agile top-down alone is, in my opinion, as quite likely to kill it - employees are, rationally, skeptical of top-down management change. We live in a post-modern, post-BRP, post-layoffs, post-recession, post-everything world. Employees aren’t children they’ve heard what happens.

Rather than impose change from the top down managers need to build, kindle people’s curiosity, get people asking questions and for help, create bottom-up change initiative and support it. Do everything build the fire without extinguishing it.

The good news is the Agile marketing machine may already have got there ahead of you. People may already be curious about Agile, or even keen to try it - they may even be doing it when you are not looking. If not then find ways to stir interest. When they come asking for support - for budget for speaker, trainers or coaches - or time to go to conferences, give it, give it generously. Offer more, ask when else they need, and above all else: learn to change your own behaviours to match.

7) Be clear on Why you are going Agile: what ever level you are, engineer, tester, project manager, director, look beyond the Agile hype. What is the problem you want “Agile” to fix for you? Understand why you want change and what you expect from it.

Don’t just “get Agile” because it is this month’s fashion, get “Agile” to achieve something more important.

8) Process and technical, Adopt technical side as well as process side: don’t think you can just change the process and it will all be all right. You need to address the technical side too, you need to improve quality, you need to support the engineers, testers and others who are at the code face doing the work.

I’ve come across big companies who view the technical side as somehow dirty: the attitude seems to be “thats technical” or “ they get their hands dirty” or “we can ship it to [Low cost country of choice this week]”.

Get your hands dirty, talk to engineers, adopt Test Driven Development, refactoring, shun big up front design architecture, learn to live with rough designs and evolving architecture. There are real feedback loops here.

9) Get Product Management/Owner flow to developers clear and clean: it isn’t just about fixing the coding side, the requirements side needs to be addressed to. Specifically there needs to be a clear path from someone who represents requirements - typically called a Product Owner or Product Manager and frequently staffed with a Business Analyst - and the development team. Far more negotiation is going to happen over “what” then “when”. Someone needs to represent - and have authority - over that side of things.

10) Structural changes - Functional groups: Staff your teams to do the work for which they are responsible, end functional groups - i.e. database developers and UI developers in separate teams. This is just the first of more structural changes you will need to make. But if you fail at this you won’t get to play again.

There you go, each of those items could be an entry in its own right, maybe one day they will be. Thats enough to get you started. If there was an eleventh is would be: let go of the past, things change, Agile isn’t purely additive. If you don’t stop doing some of your current things you will never see the full benefit. But 11 can wait, those 10 will get your a long way.


  1. Allan, great article.

    I totally agree with your point about the physical board.

    A board by its very nature is out in the open for all to see. Anyone walking past gets an instant update.

    It presents a focal point where people can gather and quickly resolve problems.


  2. What is it about the physical board that helps? I've worked in organisations that only use physical, and I've worked in organisations that only use GreenHopper (they went from physical to GreenHopper). Both were very successful when it came to doing agile, but recently, the one using physical started working with people in a geographically separate locations. That has caused major issues, where the company using GreenHopper had no problems.

    I prefer GreenHopper, because it is a permanent record for conversations/decisions on stories, and solves all the problems with boards getting out of sync with issue trackers. As for the walking past getting instant updates, we had large monitors that permanently displayed the task board and burn down chart, so anyone walking past not only gets an instant update on current task status, but also gets to see the burn down chart.

    I've never had anyone explain to me why a physical board is actually better than using GreenHopper (I haven't used any other tools so I can't comment on them), other than "it's physical so it's easier to work with". And all the people that have said that have never tried just using GreenHopper. All the advantages I've ever seen of having a physical board can be achieved using GreenHopper and dedicated task board monitors.

  3. Some comments from my recent pain.

    Point 7 - (gush) There are definite benefits to working in an agile way and there is definite traceability between the practices and the benefits. I started to work some of this out what I worked at Barclays. If you're not clear on the benefits how can you know if agile is working better for you.

    Point 9 - (double gush) the projects that worked best were the ones where we identified and worked with the real process/product owner. The ones that failed were where the process or product owner was too busy and left us with an analyst who knew little more than we did.

    Point 10 - (triple gush) this was the biggest killer from the technical team perspective on a daily basis. The other siloed teams we had to work with slowed us to a crawl. To be fair, it wasn't their fault but they were timesliced to blazes which meant that we spent a lot of time waiting for them or inventing ways of not having to wait for them.


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