There is a lot of discussion about the business value of scaling Agile. I just read the Harvard Business Review’s article from their May-June issue, titled, Agile at Scale by Darrell K. Rigby, Jeff Sutherland and Andy Noble. Comprehensive, intelligent and very insightful—a great read for any executive grappling with how to scale Agile in their organization. They reviewed hundreds of cases and walk through a number of examples that offer good lessons and practical discussion around various implementations.
Agile isn’t just an engineering methodology anymore; increasingly it’s become a business practice—and there is a proliferation of good research, frameworks and reading material for those who seek some guidance. In this post, I would like to make 3 points I believe every senior executive should consider when it comes to scaling Agile. I’m not here to drill down on the details, but rather provide some context based on Encora’s experience. My 3 points:
- Cultural change is necessary
- Team skills, roles and cross-functional structure and coordination are important
- Metrics aligned to business value are what matter
Cultural Change is Necessary
You can’t skip this part and it is incumbent on the leadership to facilitate and reinforce the business’ commitment to an Agile transformation. Unless your company “grew up” Agile, like Spotify, business executives need to prepare for the necessary cultural shift across the entire organization.
"Every department doesn’t need to become Agile, but everyone does need to have an Agile mindset in order for the transformation to succeed."
Key attributes of this include recognizing it’ll take investment and a top-down supportive effort for change to happen. The executive suite needs ways to enable and participate in order for the transformation to become sustainable and deliver actual business value. Otherwise, you’re just implementing “Agile Teams” or “DevOps” tactically, but still risk friction and misalignment with the business.
When a company’s culture is Agile, it inherently operates at heightened levels of efficiency and communication that, IMHO, are fundamental to smart growth associated with successful digital transformations. So, start with setting the tone and establishing a strong leadership commitment to a culture based on an Agile mindset and customer value; and this becomes the foundation for Agile process, structure and metrics to work.
Team Skills, Roles and Cross-Functional Structure Sets the Stage for Effective Communication and Collaboration Across the Business
From whatever core Agile program you have in place, build from there. In our experience, what helps drive successful outcomes are the right team skill sets, roles, cross-team coordination, collaboration and orchestration, and; cross-functional team structures. Balancing this approach with the guiding Agile principle of team autonomy—you inherently create an ecosystem that can be self-sufficient. Many organizations create teams intending to be Agile, but, by the way they are managed—Agility is lost. A common mistake is when executives and product management cannot adapt to the iterative, value-add approach of Agile and insist on “old school” command and control tactics such as defined release plans that are too big. If you commit to Agile, live to it.
"Being an Agile team comes with a great responsibility to the business to be communicative, accountable and transparent."
Their charter is to not only accomplish the task at hand (developing a product function or feature), but also to communicate, collaborate and orchestrate within the team, across teams, and to the broader business stakeholders that support and are affected by their results. The Technical Lead, (Scrum Master) and Product Owner roles have emerged as important to achieving this. In our experience, they are active development team members, as well as active colleagues to counterpart roles such as, Portfolio Management and Architectural Design. The right frequency of meetings and analytics are the currency for effective communication.
The final layer to a team structure includes enabling the development team access to customers, so a continuous feedback loop is created from the “source” (not filtered by internal stakeholders). We find that this fosters greater problem-solving skills among developers as they get richer context from users and ensures a customer-centric mechanism for continuous improvement.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen teams evolve to incorporate specialized roles, for example Quality and Security, especially with DevOps/DevSecOps adoption becoming more pervasive. The benefit of incorporating these functions into the team is to create greater concurrency and improve anticipation of total needs. For example, when development teams alone use Agile methods to successfully increase their frequency of releases, the bottleneck affecting time-to-value can move downstream to operations—so, the net benefit of Agile is lost to the business. Likewise, with Security, to really incorporate their input from the beginning can save time, avoid re-engineering code, and produce more resilient products. (Read our recent whitepaper on Building an Application Security Mindset).
The concept of Teams by themselves is not enough. Some companies we work with will use (one of the many) Agile frameworks to put structure and process into place. Others rely on consultancies to drive the transformation. And others formulate their own approaches. For example, they may have operational business lines and a standard reporting structure, but also create an Agile Adoption Team or Transformation Office, which becomes the change agent bridging progress and metrics from cross-functional teams up to the executive level. Whatever the scenario, Encora’s core competency is developing software and enabling cross-team collaboration, coordination and orchestration with great Agility.
Metrics Should Translate Agile Efforts into Tangible Business Value
Metrics provide the objective feedback needed to understand what is working and what effect it’s having on the business. Metrics that correlate Agile to your company’s success not only measure the “output” of what you are delivering, but also the “outcome” or results of what is delivered. The objective of embarking on an Agile transformation is certainly to accelerate product delivery, but more importantly, achieving better business results.
When metrics are effective, the business can understand things like where additional investment is required to accelerate deliverability; how a customer experience can improve when engaging Support; the association of higher incremental revenue as a result of accelerating new releases; and the reduction in Support calls as a result of higher quality in delivered product. So, there are many types of measures, but the key here is knowing how they relate to the customer experience and characterize business value.
Getting to the right set of (output and outcome) metrics also takes an Agile mindset and is best developed collaboratively through a cross functional discussion. When done right, they go a long way toward creating transparency and visibility about the business that benefits everyone.
I have to say that, for us at Encora, it’s music to our ears when clients want to expand their Agile programs. The reasons vary, but always center around improving customer experience, accelerating time-to-market and bringing better alignment between product development/delivery and the business’ goals.
Whatever is driving the need, we support and enable the transition—not with consultancy— but rather by standing shoulder-to-shoulder among the Teams to bring about the practical day-to-day best practices that makes Agile scalable. In some instances, we fill in specialized skill sets like Product Owner or DevOps engineer. In others, we provide architectural oversight across a variety of Teams so decisions around design, development and tools are technically aligned. In all cases, we work to instill software development best practices and measure progress across development teams and across business lines, so there is continuous communication and a strong sense of alignment around the business.