Author: Craig Barker

Agile. A word with seemingly endless permutations of definitions; often thought to only be a ‘good fit’ for technology and IT departments. The practice is often misunderstood, leading to failures and inevitable team restructures – with new heads keen to not make the same mistakes as their predecessors, with everything quickly reverting back to ‘normal’ and any semblance of agility discarded.

It’s reported that around 85% of software developers use agile techniques in their work. The methodology isn’t new to the arena, with Amazon, Netflix and Spotify all using agile principles to feed their innovation activities. Netflix famously have a free-flowing, adaptable approach to management and organisational development, and it’s no better documented than in Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord’s, Powerful: Building a Culture ofFreedom and Responsibility: “All companies, from start-ups to corporate behemoths, must become great adapters. They need the ability to anticipate new market demands and to pounce on remarkable opportunities and new technologies. Otherwise, the competition will simply innovate faster.”

This relates in its entirety to Darwin’s Origin of Species, where the most adaptable survives. Those transitioning from waterfall to agile are often led by their assumptions: that without a rigid structure, anarchy and chaos reign free, leaving the board with unanswered questions and unmet expectations. But it doesn’t have to be that way – and here’s why.

Involve executives in early conversations

The biggest cause of unrest is the exclusion of key stakeholders in discussions, instead calling on them to blindly “trust the team” and their new methodology. At the Agile and Beyond Conference in 2017, Mike Cottmeyer – CEO and Founder of LeadingAgile – said that for delivery dates to be given, a consistent velocity is needed. He continues to say that, “dependencies outside of the [development] team make that [constant velocity] impossible, so the team cannot predict when it will be done.”

The solution here is to show how execs are empowered to fix these dependencies – and often, organisational delays or constraints are outside the realms of software development. A great reference point lies in Eliyahu Goldratt’s Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, where he suggests that problems are there to be explored, not feared. Involve your executives; let them set project expectations. This talks to agile metrics which relate to project or product outcomes – instead of Gantt charts, measures of success are calculated by outcome-based metrics, giving a quantifiable way of knowing if your efforts are moving in the right direction. By using decision filters, you can determine if you should continue with your current efforts, or move to a different tactic to better serve your desired outcome.

Training is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Telling your execs how sprints, stand-ups and other Scrum principles work is great – but forgetting to show them how to manage the dependencies and the budget that comes with them isn’t. It’s common to find that most ‘management’ books on agile are methods suitable for team level, and not execs – and throwaway buzzword-filled phrases offer little in the way of help.

By way of useful literature, The Unicorn Project, a companion novel to The Phoenix Project, are works of fiction that chart digital transformation, with many scenarios ringing true for devs everywhere. Unlike terminology-heavy manuscripts, these are easy-to-read and digestible by people who aren’t digital natives.

Invest in bespoke training for your different tiers; as important as it is to have your devs clued up on the ‘how’, your execs need a good dose of the ‘why’, too. This will create an ecosystem of understanding and keep everyone on the same page, working towards one shared goal.

Be brave: throwaway the frosted glass of waterfall

We’ve all been there. A project is running late, and we’ve cut corners on quality, testing and features in lieu of something of the highest priority. It works in the short-term; execs are happy and on the surface the product is delivered on-time. Beneath that glossy exterior lies the truth: lower priority tasks fall by the way-side and are never addressed, making continuous change even harder.

Before we can allow agile to flourish beyond the development teams, we need to understand what it is that makes agile seem to go wrong when looked at through the eyes of the execs. A 2020 study shows 80% of shipped features are never used, prompting software executives to re-think success metrics, so that they focus on value creation rather than outputs. Adopting agile practices can make it seem like suddenly you’re behind schedule because the usual illusion of control from waterfall has gone. In actuality, it leads to more efficient working.

Times are changing; and some things have been altered irrevocably. Agile is nothing to be feared, it is simply change. This time, it might be bottom up or internally driven, but its purpose is the same as all change, more effectively improving outcomes for customers.

Agile isn’t a plug-and-play solution: just like you can’t ‘do’ agile to an organisation, it will fail if you don’t give it the air support it needs. Lose the fear of agile methodologies and see how with proper training, goal-setting, expectations and understanding, it can be the best move you can make, leaving you sure-footed in a world where no two days are the same – the perfect environment in which agile can thrive.

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Who contributed to this article

  • Craig Barker
    Chief Customer Officer

    Craig Barker is BlackCat’s Chief Customer Officer and co-founder. He acts as the voice of the customer, ensuring the business remains focussed on their needs and that we always deliver the best possible outcomes. Craig also supports BlackCat’s engagement and delivery functions and can often be found guiding and coaching our teams, encouraging a culture of collaboration and learning. Craig’s background is technical. Prior to founding BlackCat with Simon Godden, he gained a first class honours degree in Computer Science from the University of Aston then built up almost 20 years experience in delivering innovative software across a variety of industry sectors. He’s an advocate of lean and agile methodologies and is happiest in the thick of the most complex of deliveries.