The agile approach has become more in demand and adopted, with varying degrees of success in my opinion. After reflecting on when it’s been successful and when it’s been an outright disaster, I’ve zeroed in on a number of critical success factors (CSFs). These are based on my own experience.
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CSF 1: Use the right tools
An agile approach is suitable for complex fuzzy problems that require innovative solutions. Solutions that are new and therefore impossible to predict and plan for in detail. Solutions emerge gradually through several iterations of prototyping. Each iteration provides new knowledge that will bring the work closer to an answer to the problem .
An agile approach is exploratory and allows for learning about both the problem and the solution. It requires everyone involved to accept, or even welcome, the unknown.
CSF 2: Practice consistently to master the approach
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Agile methods have relatively few and seemingly simple structures, which gives ample room to act freely within the current framework. At the same time, it means that practice is required to master the approach. Without consistent practice, the approach will not reach its full potential for the organization. So how do you master an approach? I would like to point out five areas:
The ability to use an agile approach is best developed by doing under the guidance of those who are more experienced. Since exploring is essential to this type of work, each situation becomes unique. Nevertheless, the past experience contains valuable insights to be used when navigating the unknown in the future. Pay attention to the team composition to ensure that experienced team members are mixed with less experienced people; this provides a means of harnessing the combination of the wisdom of experience with “young” enthusiasm and energy.
View all instances where an agile approach is used as a practice opportunity, not just as a way to solve a specific problem. Take feedback on, and evaluate, how well individuals and teamwork moved the issue forward and what could be improved, and review the results. Allow evaluation of both the individual contribution and collective capabilities. In what way does everyone contribute to the task, to the team’s cooperation, etc.
In agile working, everyone benefits from seeing themselves as students rather than experts. Be willing to try things and learn from the experience. Be humble before the task, before others’ skills and experience, different views and perspectives. Two important questions are: What can I learn? How can I help?
There is a difference between performing a task intentionally and performing it mechanically. With commitment, energy and intention, better results are achieved. To act intentionally requires presence and attention.
Test limits where safe. It is only by challenging existing concepts and beliefs that we can discover something new. In this lies having the courage to be vulnerable, to see and admit any shortcomings and to be in the unknown – it should be experienced as exciting not to know where the work will take you.
CSF 3: Create space for creative brains
Finding innovative solutions to vague problems requires a mixed set of skills and therefore working in teams is beneficial. To achieve success in development, the focus is on the team and collaboration within the team rather than detailed routines and structures.
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To ensure the team’s success, certain conditions must be in place:
* The team has to have, or have ready access to, all necessary skills
* Healthy and shared values
* Everyone on the team must understand the problem definition and the task
* The roles must be clear
* Good ability to communicate and collaborate
* Team members’ ability to see their own contribution and their own learning process
* Leadership that promotes and supports cultivating relationships .
I would like to emphasize and discuss some of the prerequisites:
Shared values are essential. Values such as curiosity, openness, humility, courage, focus and discipline need to permeate the team and its behavior. Without openness and humility before the task, one will not be able to dive into the unknown and seek new and different solutions. Lack of respect and courage will undermine the opportunities for good communication and collaboration. Without focus, progress will suffer. The values that are relevant in each individual case may vary, but together they should promote cooperation.
When the members’ ability to see their own role in the team and how to contribute to its success is good, learning and collaboration will flow smoother, thus increasing the team’s ability to develop creative solutions. Everyone should focus on value creation rather than proving his or her own value.
Here, leadership is needed that builds relationships. It is not limited to the team but also involves other stakeholders and the organization as a whole. An important role is also to support more junior team members so that they can perform well.
CSF 4: How to make agile harmonize with operations
There can be an inherent conflict between agile teams that deliver quickly and innovatively and the more stable day-to-day business. It is the management’s responsibility to ensure coordination between structured processes for quality assured deliveries and agile methods for rapid development with innovative heights. The leaders in the organization must have a good understanding of each approach and when and how they separately and together contribute to the success of the business.
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There are two areas to pay special attention to:
There must be a common understanding of what problem is to be solved and for whom it is to be solved. It may sound obvious, but in my experience, that is not always the case. A sense of urgency with no time to waste on this task – best to “start building” as soon as possible to “catch up”. The results of this approach have mostly been unsatisfactory.
The problem must be defined as clearly as possible to create a connection between the overall business goal and the development team’s task. A clear connection ensures that the development team is working on the right thing and that the delivery and the change it entails are perceived as making sense for the business.
Clear roles between development team and operations as well as between development team and management must be established. It must be crystal clear which roles exist in which teams and how to interact between teams. The organization must be set up in a way that ensures that the business has the capacity to receive frequent renewals of an innovative nature.
Photo: Ann Horn
Sources of inspiration
This blog post is the result of inspiration from many sources. I would especially like to mention George Leonard (Mastery) and scrum.org. The reflections are entirely my own and any distortion of the sources’ original ideas falls on my responsibility.