Getting started with Agile is straightforward; succeeding with it is challenging. You can’t just introduce a new approach, like Scrum or Kanban, and automatically gain all of Agile’s benefits. To really succeed with Agile, you have to adapt it to the specific needs of your team and your organization.
That can be very difficult; most teams struggle with it. In my previous post, “9 Signs You’re Struggling with Agile Adoption,” I described a set of common symptoms. In this post, I’ll describe 9 methods you can use to move beyond those challenges. To get the most out of your Agile adoption, you have to transform your approach. Here’s how.
Method 1: Focus on Your Objectives
The goal of Agile isn’t to check boxes and follow a process; it’s to become more effective. Your team and your organization exist for a purpose—it might be to attract more customers, grow your clients’ businesses, or offer better services. Your Agile adoption must align to that purpose. What is it you’re trying to achieve and how are you measuring progress along the way? Those objectives should be the anchor of your Agile adoption. Focus on them, make sure they’re clear to everyone, and use them to harness your team’s creativity as you inspect, adapt, and improve your way of working.
Method 2: Go Where the Work is Done
People are the heart of your organization. For Agile to succeed, they have to be involved. You must invite your team to participate, understand their concerns, and use their knowledge to tailor Agile to your organization. In Lean Manufacturing, this is called “going to the gemba.” Gemba is a Japanese term meaning “the actual place.” It is where the work is done. Sit down with your team members, be open to their concerns, and describe your objectives. Collaborate with them and craft a message that explains how Agile will help you achieve your objectives while also improving how they work. Don’t impose Agile from above; blend top-down goals with bottom-up creativity.
Method 3: Celebrate Learning and Failure
Agile approaches accelerate learning. Rapid feedback cycles expose the limits of our understanding, both of the solutions we build and of our ways of working. That means we are going to be wrong. There will be failures and mistakes. When these occur, they should be celebrated as opportunities. Each failure gives us new information that we can use to improve our way of working. Capitalize on that information. Reinforce the learning and use it to get better.
This will create a virtuous cycle. A positive approach to learning and failure makes it more likely that new information will emerge earlier when you can still proactively address it. When failure is criticized or used for blame, information is hidden. Failures will still occur, but they will happen later when you’ve no time left to adjust.
Method 4: Harness Feedback Loops
The best way to discover what works for you is to harness feedback loops. All Agile approaches rely on learning. For learning to work, you have to create opportunities to expose new knowledge and capitalize on it, like Scrum’s retrospective and Kanban’s operations review. Use these forums to identify what is working well and what could be improved. Act on the improvement ideas, make changes and adapt Agile to work for you.
But don’t feel like you have to wait for the specific meetings and reviews to get better. Feedback loops can occur anytime, like after a standup or during a hallway conversation. As you and your team learn new and better ways of working, don’t hesitate to try them out and see if they’re a good fit. If something doesn’t work, record the attempt, so that when the idea comes up again you know why you discarded it the first time. Stress continual improvement.
Method 5: Be Willing to Change Structure
In the name of greater efficiency, many organizations have created teams of people with similar skills, like database administrators, desktop publishers, and marketing managers. As creative material flows through the organization, it’s handed off between these specialist teams. At each handoff knowledge is lost; as a result, the search for greater efficiency tends to create lower effectiveness.
Don’t be afraid to break out of this structure. Agile works best with cross-functional teams that bring together a variety of skills. Ideally, any single team can take a creative project from conception to completion. This doesn’t mean that each team has to have one person for each required skill; individuals can also be cross-functional. These “T-shaped” people have deep skill in one specialty and passable skills in other areas so that a cross-section of their skillset looks like a “T.” They can be the key to achieving both greater efficiency and greater effectiveness.
Method 6: Remember, Agile isn’t Just Scrum
Scrum is the most common form of Agile; it’s been widely adopted by IT organizations building software solutions. But don’t think Agile just means Scrum and it’s fixed timeboxes. Kanban approaches—with their more fluid, flow-based ways of working—are often a better fit for marketing, proposal writing, and other creative work. Don’t worry if other teams in your organization are already doing Scrum. You can collaborate with Scrum teams without adopting their process. Find an approach that works for you and create interfaces that merge the cadenced approach of your Scrum teams with your alternative way of working. And remember, Scrum and Kanban aren’t the only two choices. You’re allowed to develop an approach that works for you, so long as you remain true to Agile principles and values.
Method 7: Forecast, Don’t Estimate
Agile works best when decisions are made on actual data. But planning and scheduling traditionally rely on estimation, a series of guesses and optimistic assumptions about what the team can complete in a given time. There is a better way. Experienced Agile teams use historical data—their record of past deliveries—as the basis for a forecast, a probabilistic model of when they will complete their work. These models are sophisticated; they generate hundreds of outcomes and create a landscape of alternative futures. But they’re also easy to use and can trigger many better-informed conversations about plans and schedules. Would you rather hear, “We think it’ll be done by February,” or, “There’s a 95% chance we’ll have it in March”?
Method 8: Broadcast Information
Agile emphasizes self-organization; effective self-organization is fostered by knowledge. When teams know the latest information, they can quickly act on it and deliver better outcomes. This is true not just within a single team, but across an entire organization. If you’re having trouble interfacing with other teams—if you feel like they’re slowing you down—or if you’re uncertain what to tell your boss, find ways to broadcast where you are and what your team is doing. A cumulative flow diagram or burnup chart is a great way to broadcast status against a body of work. Kanban boards will limit work in progress and improve your flow; they can also highlight dependencies or where you’re waiting on other teams. Use these visualizations to foster better conversations about the work and improve how it gets done.
Method 9: Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Agile isn’t easy. All of these steps sound simple, and, for some teams, they are. But in most organizations, it’s a real challenge to adapt Agile to fit. Each of these steps requires time, attention, and skill. It is hard for most leaders to focus on improvement opportunities in addition to their already hectic day jobs. That’s where some outside help can be really valuable.
At Excella, we’re experts at making Agile succeed. We’ve gone through these steps with dozens of clients; we’ve seen them get more effective as they adapted Agile to work for them. Let us help you too; don’t be afraid to reach out and discover how we can help make your Agile adoption your greatest success story.