The most recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) cover story is “Agile at Scale: How to Create a Truly Flexible Organization” by Sutherland, Rigby, and Noble is a big deal.
After more than 3 decades of people in the software world experimenting, using, refining, formalizing, and experimenting again with various aspects of what, in 2001, was labeled “Agile” it has finally hit the cover of a major business publication. There have been other HBR articles on Agile, but it’s rare (if ever) that Agile makes the front cover.
So, a few highlights and interpretations of the article that may encourage you to go read it, and maybe even pick up a hard copy of the May-June 2018 issue as a keepsake while it’s still on newsstands.
The article covers a very brief overview of Agile for those who are unfamiliar and points out where is it obviously well suited (small innovation-oriented teams). The problem from there is how to do more of it across the organization – what we commonly call scaling. Note that this is in reference not just to additional innovation teams, but to broadening Agile across the organization in different areas beyond IT and product development. Keep in mind though not necessarily every area of the company may need to use Scrum to manage their work… for example, repetitive low-complexity tasks in stand-alone departments such as accounting may not benefit from the use of Scrum (the most popular Agile framework). Scrum is not designed for tactical efficiency, but rather for effectiveness in a complex environment. However, if we want the organization to be Agile, in terms of focusing on customer value and adaptability to changing needs, then we need to view Agile as a mindset that is applicable to every aspect of the organization.
From there the article describes considerations for applying this mindset across the organization, which of course starts with Leadership. Leaders must lead the change by… (drum roll)… changing! Desiring different results, and asking everyone else to change without changing their behavior is a recipe for spending a lot of money and energy to arrive right back where you started. Leaders go first and then begin to align the organization’s functional areas to become more effective together.
To accomplish the goals of becoming an Agile organization, it will require a continuous test & learn approach to adapt the organizational change path. It should be no surprise that a top-down command & control approach with a big-upfront-plan to transform the entire organization at once is destined for failure. Amazingly enough, we need to take an Agile approach to becoming Agile. Creating a “taxonomy” of opportunities for transformation and improvement is one possible path where the organization creates a backlog of areas & opportunities to address iteratively and incrementally. In this endeavor, it is also important that teams and organizational areas become cross-functional and that the teams are “ready” to undertake the transformation. This doesn’t mean every step is planned out, but rather than they are in a position to be self-organizing Agile teams who are supported by leadership and the organization, and have responsibility and accountability for achieving a goal together.
As more and more areas of the organization become ready and start their Agile journey, the mindset of Agile expands across the organization, even into areas that won’t operate with Scrum. Everyone adopts the Agile values and principles that we believe will make us successful together. We focus on customer oriented solutions and align the cross-functional areas of the organization to achieve common goals. But of course, this isn’t easy, and takes a lot of work from leaders to recognize impediments – things that slow or stop the teams – such as HR policies (individual performance management), budgeting policies (annual budgets), etc. Leadership’s role becomes more of a servant leader to resolve problems and allow the teams to be successful. Shifting from efficient use of resources to effectively empowering people is an important mindset shift. From a budgeting standpoint, finance experts can become mentors in the style of venture capital funding rather than ivory tower controllers. Both of these shifts, and others, support successful scaling of Agile in areas that aren’t as apparent when we’re looking at single-team Agile.
As organizations look toward help and support in scaling, there are several frameworks that can be helpful such as Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS) and Scrum at Scale (S@S). Project Brilliant has led many Agile transformations with companies large and small using these and other techniques, and we’d be happy to help you start or continue your Agile journey!