Hiring Agile Coaches

I was inspired by this tweet from Dave Nicolette to talk a bit about what I look for when hiring Agile professionals.

Understanding the value of Agile coaches

While I have been working exclusively with Agile techniques since we adopted Extreme Programming at a start-up where I was the development lead in 2000, I had never encountered a team-aligned full-time Agile professional before I joined Spotify in 2013. My prior experience with Agile was always that the team was responsible for it.

As a development lead, I was the XP coach when we did Extreme Programming. When my teams chose Scrum, I might take the role of Scrum Master, or it was the Program Manager, someone else on the team, or float between multiple people.

When I came to Spotify and found that I had three Agile coaches in my tribe, I was first a bit skeptical about the role. The coaches I worked with were not program managers, not scrum masters. They didn’t “lead” Agile in the teams with whom they worked. I wasn’t sure what their purpose was.

I first came to understand their value when one of them went on an extended vacation a few months after I started. At Spotify, I had found the most advanced and mature implementation of Agile/Lean product development at a scale that I have ever seen. I knew the coaches helped this, but I wasn’t sure how.

The coach went on their vacation, and everything kept going on as usual for a while. I would visit the stand-ups, and teams were adding stories and tracking them across the boards. One day I sat in on a squad’s stand-up and noticed that they had added a couple of swim lanes to their Kanban board. They now had more swim lanes than developers—a big red flag.

Over the weeks the coach was gone, the teams slowly slid into some bad habits. Velocity started to slip. I did my best to make them aware of this and get them back onto better paths, but I couldn’t be with each team enough.

The coach came back from vacation, and within a week or so, things were back to their high levels of performance. I wanted to see how he did it, and so I watched the ceremonies when I could. He didn’t cajole or quote Agile texts at them. He gently reminded them what good looked like, lessons they had learned in the past. He asked them many questions around why they thought what they were doing was a good idea. He didn’t “fix” them. He got them to fix themselves—a true coach.

Now I understood the value of the Agile coach role.

Good coach, bad coach

As Spotify grew and the number of Agile coaches in the company swelled, I also got to see some challenges with the role. Some coaches were highly effective and some less so. I had been lucky to start with three excellent coaches in my team. Some of my peers struggled with the coaches in their organizations.

As I came to understand the characteristics of the coaches that I found successful, I started to look for those qualities as we hired into our team. I have continued to look for those qualities as I have created those roles at companies in the US and UK where the role of Agile Coach (versus Scrum Master, Delivery Manager, or Agile Project Manager) is still novel.

Before I enumerate those characteristics, I want to make one point about careers as an Agile professional.

It is a tough job.

In many parts of the world, full-time Agile roles are very hard to come by. Mostly, companies hire Agile folks on a contractual basis. So, most Agile people have to string together six- or twelve-month stints at various companies trying to earn a living.

After reviewing hundreds of CVs in the US and Europe, the same companies show up often. These companies are always the ones who are in year X of a one-year Agile transformation program. Those are soul-crushing gigs.

The stringing together of short-term jobs can lead to a consultant mindset. These folks have the wisdom from having to jump into hostile environments, trying to survive. They have seen many mistakes that companies have made. Few have held the more extended roles where they have not only got teams functioning in an Agile way, but also helped them to evolve to a much better level. Their experience is broad, but not deep.

It is vital to keep that in mind as you review applicants, you need to understand their world and watch out for folks who have gotten stuck in that short-term mindset.

What I look for when I hire Agile coaches

  • A product development background.
    It isn’t critical which specific history the person has as a developer, tester, product manager, UX designer, engineering manager… I want to see that they had direct experience shipping a product. Agile roles have been around long enough that people can be trained in them in school and go right into the profession. From my experience, Agile people without experience building products can have a hard time making the trade-offs that are sometimes necessary. They may focus too much on the “how” without understanding the “why,” “what,” or “when.”
  • Broad knowledge of Agile frameworks and techniques.
    While the core of Agile thinking has been around for many years, new practices and methods continue to evolve. Like any profession, I look for a candidate to demonstrate that they are not only keeping up but are interested in what is happening in their field.
  • Experience growing a teams’ proficiency over time.
    As I mentioned above, many Agile professionals get stuck in an endless series of Agile transformations at different companies. While this is a valuable experience for an Agile consultant, it isn’t that practical for someone coming into a long-term role.
  • Pragmatic, not pedantic.
    Pragmatism is something I look for in everyone I hire. I would not expect this to be an issue for an Agile professional, but I have interviewed people whose definition of what was or was not correct was defined by a single book.
  • Knowing what good looks like.
    The characteristics of a high-performing Agile team are incredibly context-dependent. There is no single way to be an effectual team. So how do you convince teams to invest in improvement? You need to give them the vision of what they can be, which means that you need to know what “good” looks like.
  • Knowing what bad looks like.
    The converse of knowing what good looks like is knowing what bad looks like. I want to hear what the candidate identifies as harmful patterns in a team. The patterns they identify, help me understand how they look at teams. I also want to listen to their techniques for breaking teams out of these patterns. I want to hear what has worked and not worked for them.
  • A desire to build something bigger than themselves.
    I want to see some ambition in a coach. Not just to get a group working well, but to redefine what a group can achieve with the right support. If a candidate thinks their job is complete when the team has regular ceremonies, a groomed backlog, and a good flow of tickets, they probably aren’t what I am looking for.
  • Experience working with cross-functional stakeholders.
    Too many people view Agile as a software development thing, with defined boundaries aligned to the engineering team. Successful Agile organizations interface with the whole company, even if those functions do not choose to work in an Agile way.

Building an Agile coaching practice in your organization

If you want to build a new Agile coaching practice within your organization, it is best to start slow. Hire one coach, work with them to establish what the role means within your company. When the organization demands more time from them than they have to give, it will be time to hire a second coach, and so on.

Each coach should be able to support multiple teams, especially if you want the teams to own their practices instead of the coach (this is one reason why the coach should not be the scrum master for the groups they work with). Working with multiple groups also helps give some visibility across the organization about the quality of Agile practices and is an excellent conduit for best practice sharing.

You may have over-hired on coaches when the Agile coaches end up driving their deliverables and organizing their work as a function. That may mean that the coach to team ratio is off.

If you are serious about evolving your Agile practice as an organization and improving the quality, efficiency, and happiness of your teams, hire an Agile coach.

But make sure you hire the right one.

Y.A.L.A.M.F.A.T.D.B.P. (Yet Another Legos As Metaphor For Agile and Technical Debt Blog Post)

One of my family’s quarantine projects is re-assembling all my daughter’s old Lego sets. The pieces from the sets are in several large storage totes, mixed at random from years of building and taking things apart. As I was digging through a box today looking for some specific piece, I started noticing the system I had started to use.

As I looked for a piece, I would start to collect identical pieces and join them up. Joining pieces allows me later to find those pieces later more efficiently, even if I put them back into the box. It also reduced the number of pieces I would have to sort through to find anything. I do this unconsciously because I have done this ever since I was a kid.

A picture containing toy, table, indoor, cake

Description automatically generated

Today I realized that this was a perfect metaphor for paying down technical debt.

Grouping the Legos as you are building means that you take a little bit longer on the sets you make at the beginning, but each successive set gets faster. Not only are there fewer Legos to sort through, but the Legos that are there are becoming more and more organized.

When working in a code base that has accumulated a lot of technical or architectural debt, cleaning things up as you go means that your velocity increases over time. Ignoring technical debt is like adding a few random Legos to the box as you take pieces out. Not only does it not get simpler or faster. It gets slower. Eventually, you have to go to the store to buy a new set because it is just easier than finding the pieces for the old one. Or worse, you have to go to eBay and pay twice as much for the same set because Lego stopped manufacturing it. (I am probably abusing the metaphor here.)

I’ve also been thinking about the difference between building a set by pulling out Legos from a big box versus building a brand-new set.

When you build a new set, the pieces come in smaller bags. Lego numbers the bags, so you only need to open one at a time to find the parts you need. Bigger sets may have multiple instruction books, also ordered by number.

The grouping of Lego pieces into bags is a metaphor for Agile software development.

By narrowing the scope and limiting the options, you make the work go faster, even when the problem is involved (like one of their expert models).

The next time you are trying to explain to your product manager (or anyone) why you need to add more tech-debt stories into the backlog even though it means a feature will take longer to deliver, bring in a big box of Legos as a teaching tool. If it doesn’t work, you’ll at least have a fun team meeting…

The Personal Strategy Off-site

If your company is starting to plan for getting back into your office, now is a good time for you to schedule a personal strategy day.

The Whirlwind

In the whirlwind of the day-to-day work, it is often hard to carve out time for something that does not have a specific deliverable. Working from home can be even more challenging because of the additional pressures of helping your family. In the tech lead training program I am doing at Onfido, we are currently discussing how to be more strategic leaders. A familiar dictum of strategic thinking is the criticality of taking the time to think and plan.

The Personal Strategy Day

Liminal spaces are the transitionary spaces between things. In the liminal space between moving from working at home to being back fully in the office environment, you have an opportunity to try something new—a personal strategy day.

Block out a day in your calendar as people start moving back to the office. There will be some turbulence then as everyone is transitioning. It is the perfect time to start thinking about what you want to accomplish for yourself and your team before the whirlwind starts up again.

The Personal Off-site

Companies schedule off-sites to get away from the distractions of the office. If you can find a “third place” (a place that is not your office or your home) where you can focus, that is ideal. If not, book a secluded conference room in your office, or find an empty desk far from where you usually sit. If you are still at home, let your family know you are working, and need some blocks of focused time.

Focus

Don’t read your e-mail. Don’t take any meetings. Your job on that day is to think and plan. To help me focus, I will usually print out whatever supporting materials I think I need and work on paper to avoid the lure of the notifications and other electronic distractions. Think of this as a gift of time and focus that you are giving yourself.

What to consider

Think of the time before the lockdowns began. You may have just been starting on your 2020 commitments and deliverables. What was going well then? What were your concerns? Now think through what you have learned about your team, the work, and yourself during the lockdown. What do you want to keep, and what do you want to discard as you go back to the office? What about the industry you are in, and the world at large has changed? What new pitfalls and opportunities are there? Now think ahead to the rest of the year. What new goals should you have for yourself and your team?

Take notes. Write things down. You will want to refer to them as you go through the year to revisit or remind yourself of your thinking.

Now make a plan. Not too detailed because the world is going to keep changing. Detailed enough that you feel as if you have something against which to execute. Write that down also. With milestones, if possible.

Finally, think about the process you just completed. Did it work for you? Would you do it again? If so, what would you change next time?

Retrospect and Revisit

This whole process may take anywhere from a couple of hours for you to an entire day. Don’t be too preoccupied with the length of time you spend. You are starting to build a practice of taking time for strategic thinking, so this is about taking more time than you have before.

If you found this valuable, you may want to plan your next strategy day for six or twelve months from now. Again, block it out in the calendar early and protect that time!

You may also find that it is good to schedule smaller blocks of time, weekly or monthly, to revisit your plan, track progress, and make adjustments. These blocks of time are strategic thinking too!

Conclusion

If you struggle to keep time for strategy, building a structured approach like a personal strategy day may help you create a practice. Using the liminal times like transitioning from lockdown back to whatever it is that comes after is an opportunity to block and protect time. The liminal times are also crucial for strategy because your past assumptions are likely no longer correct, and there may be some opportunities or challenges that weren’t visible before.

Some resources

I’ve spent the last several years building a structured personal strategy process for myself. Many people have inspired my practice. Their suggestions may inspire you as well.

Agile at AstrumU: A Case Study

Introduction

This article is meant to present how we organize our work at AstrumU, a startup based in the US in Seattle with remote offices for sales and some of the development team. Our development team has grown significantly over the last six months. The company is about a year old.

Our product is composed of multiple web-based front-end applications backed by a steadily increasing number of microservices.

My Biases

I’m going to state some of my biases up-front. I firmly ascribe to the dictum that you don’t let your tools dictate your process. I am also a firm believer in using a physical board for a team to organize work.

In my experience, a physical board is only useful with a co-located team. I have managed distributed agile teams for many years. I have not found a way to avoid using a digital board when the team doesn’t physically sit together.

I have used many of the agile digital tools over the years. I am not a strong advocate for any particular one. When I joined AstrumU, we were already using Jira, and I saw no reason to switch to a different tool. There are some workflows that we’ve built in Jira that might be useful for other teams, so I include them here.

Jira is such a catch-all tool that its’ complexity makes it difficult for teams to adopt. I’m hoping that our workflows might show other teams some useful things that Jira can do.

Our Agile Process

At AstrumU we use a simple Kanban process, with some of the ceremonies from Scrum. Some call this “Scrumban.”

We have a daily standup at 9 am in the US. On Mondays, we follow the stand-up with a retrospective or a planning meeting (alternating weeks). The retrospectives and standup are similar to the traditional Scrum ceremonies so I won’t describe them here. Our planning meeting is different. I describe it later in a later section.

Projects and How We Use Them

Given that we build multiple products and a variety of independent supporting services, it makes sense not to have one project for all of our development or one project per team to track work. Instead, we use multiple projects that are each specific to a product or supporting service. We currently have 14 different projects in Jira covering everything from an application front-end to our cross-service security work.

We try to keep the projects clear enough that it is obvious where a work-item should go, but it can still be sometimes confusing to identify the right project for a new task. We’re working to make this more apparent.

A benefit of this structure is that we can leverage pull requests in our GitHub projects to transition stories to the “done” and “released” states automatically as the code moves from a feature branch to the develop branch to the main line.

To track the overall work of the team, we have a master AstrumU project that consolidates and tracks all the work in the other projects. The AstrumU project is the only one in Jira that has a Kanban view and is the single source of truth for prioritization and work-in-progress. This project is also where work items that span multiple projects, such as infrastructure or general documentation, are added.

this is how we include the other projects in our master project

Taxonomy of our work items

We have four different packages of work: Epics, Stories, Tasks, and Bugs. We use the Jira built-in types for these. Each has a different use, scope, and meaning in our workflow.

Epics

The product team works with the development and data teams to create Jira Epics in the AstrumU project to capture substantial efforts such as an MVP of a new feature. Epics are sized to be a reasonable amount of work to complete within a few weeks or less of dedicated development time (i.e., “Students Can Register On the Site” not “Build the Student App MVP”). The Epic ticket includes as much context as possible: links to user research, UI designs, and product concept documents, for example. The Epic also includes acceptance criteria (a.k.a. the definition of done).

Stories

The development and data teams break the Epics down into Stories to track the implementation and design work. We size Stories for completion within a day or two at most (i.e., “Route <url> to new service in Traefik” not “Create the Student API service”). The work for a story includes time to write tests and validate that the code works. The work also includes things like adding telemetry or monitoring as appropriate. The majority of Stories link to an Epic, but that is not a requirement. Stories without Epics tend to be one-off maintenance efforts, small incremental improvements to a feature or refactoring or other technical debt.

Stories should always contain acceptance and enough context that any developer who picks up the task has all the information needed to complete the work. The context is especially critical because of the distributed nature of the team. We have found problems when a story is missing this information because a developer cannot complete it without having to wait for standup to get the missing context. We have also had stories done incorrectly because of missing context.

Tasks

If, as part of defining or working on a Story, we come across a small separable effort for someone else to take over and work on independently, we create a Task and link it to the Story.

Scoping for a Task is in the range of a few hours. If a Task is enough work to be a day or longer, it should be a Story instead. If the Task is simple one-off maintenance or a hygiene effort, we do not link it to a Story or Epic.

Bugs

Bugs are indicators of something broken in existing code. Bugs are not used to specify new or incremental feature work. Refactoring code or reorganizing repositories is not bug work. A page rendering incorrectly or an API failing are examples of bugs.

We file Bugs against the most appropriate Jira project for the issue. We encourage anyone in the company to file a bug when they find it. For folks who don’t know what Project to file the bug against, they file it against the AstrumU project, and it is moved to the appropriate project later.

Organizing and Tracking the Work

We have two Kanban Boards in the AstrumU project. One tracks Epics only and the other tracks Stories, Tasks, and Bugs.

The Epic Kanban Board

Since our epics track the significant efforts in progress, the Epic board is an evident view of the work that the teams are doing and what is next. For those who do not need to follow the details of the work, this is an excellent view-at-a glance of the state of the world. If you want more detail about an Epic, you can open the Epic to see what work is complete and what work remains.

Our Kanban board for Epics has three columns: To Do, In Progress, and Done. The simplicity of the columns makes sense for an Epic workflow where the primary goal is transparency and managing the amount of work in progress. We also maintain a backlog for Epics.

The ordering of Epics in the columns denotes priority, but there is no strict enforcement of having the stories in the other board match the epic prioritization exactly. If there is a significant disparity, that in itself would signal some potential issues in our process.

An Epic moves from the To Do to the In Progress column when it is ready for work by the whole team if there are people available to work on it. There may be some Stories that we start on in Epics that are still in the To Do column. That is almost always cards for the UX or Product Managers to prepare the Epic for the rest of the team.

Epics move from In Progress to Done when all the stories, tasks, and bugs attached to the Epic are complete, and the Product, UX, and Engineers sign off on the Acceptance Criteria (this is very informal).

Epics move from the Done column off of the board after the bi-weekly planning meeting (described later) if all code elements from the Epic are now running in Production.

The Detail Board

The detail Kanban board

The board that the development and UX teams most interact with is the Story/Task/Bug Kanban board. This board contains five columns: To Do, Blocked, In Progress, In Review and Done. Without context, this board can look very chaotic with all the stories from different teams, different projects and different epics. In reality, the team likes it because it shows very clearly what things are complete, what is in progress, and what is next.

Most of the time we have a single swim lane, but when we have any time-critical cards, we use a separate Expedite swim lane to track them.

The cards’ position in the column denotes priority. Developers are expected to take their next work item from as near the top of the To Do column as they can. Because each card that is part of an Epic has the title and color of that Epic on the card, it is straightforward to see if the prioritization of the cards aligns with the priorities of the Epics.

Cards move from To Do to In Progress when a developer is free. We do not let a single developer have more than one card In Progress. When a developer starts work on a card, if they realize that the scope of the work is too big for a story, they break down the card into smaller stories and tasks. They can keep moving forward on their work. We discuss the breakdown in the next day’s standup. If the team agrees on the new stories and tasks, those cards get prioritized in the To Do column.

If a Developer is working on a card and finds that a dependency on another card is blocking their work, they link the two cards and then move the blocked card to the Blocked column. A card only moves to the Blocked column if the blocking dependency is In Progress. If the dependency is the To Do column, then the developer adds comments about what they have done, they push their in-progress branch to Github and then put the card back in To Do and start on something else.

Once the work for a card is done and tested locally, the developer submits a Pull Request for their feature branch and moves the card to the In Review column. Each code change requires two other developers to review and approve the change. When the Pull Request merges into the Development branch, the card moves from In Review to the Done column automatically.

When a release is created in GitHub as part of our semantic versioning scheme and the code moves from our Development cluster to our Production cluster, there is a parallel release done in Jira, and the stories move off of the Kanban board.

I have been considering doing a separate column for UX Review on the Kanban board and may add that in future.

The Planning Meeting

Every other week after the Monday standup meeting we have our planning meeting. The agenda of the meeting is: Review the completed Epics from the last two weeks; review the Epics that are currently in progress and review any new epics that may be moved from To Do to In Progress in the next two weeks.

For the In Progress Epics, we discuss the work remaining with an eye towards making sure the remaining stories satisfy the acceptance criteria of the Epic. If not, we may need to add additional stories.

For the upcoming Epics, we discuss the product, UX and business context of the Epic so that the teams understand why we are working on this Epic next and why it is relevant to our business. We make sure the acceptance criteria is understood. For feature work, the Product Manager and UX designer discuss the rationale behind the epic and the initial UX designs. The development team then reviews the cards associated with the Epic to make sure they are correct and make suggestions of things to change to keep the work in scope.

Initially, we tried generating the stories as part of the Planning meeting, but that proved too cumbersome. The stories and tasks are now generated beforehand by the engineering leadership. Generating the initial stories in this way is a temporary solution. Ideally, the team should generate the stories and tasks themselves.

Challenges

Our current process is the result of iteration and continuous improvement. There are still some challenges to resolve.

One of the biggest challenges we need to resolve has to do with the time difference between the Seattle and remote teams. While a good backlog and prioritization in any agile process require ongoing grooming, having the teams working hours off of each other means that there is a lot of daily grooming work. Especially since new cards are being added every day by developers breaking down stories, Product Managers adding incremental changes, or bugs coming in. If there are a couple of days without dedicated effort on the backlog, developers can find themselves not being sure what to work on next. Our best solution to the problem so far is to empower the lead developer, who is remote, to be able to update the board to unblock developers there as needed.

Another challenge is making sure that all teams are using the process consistently. We’ve had a few issues with the shared board contained too many stories in the In Progress or To Do columns because one team wasn’t using the same criteria as the rest of the organization. Doing some internal documentation and training has mostly addressed this problem.

Our most frequent issue is that the Done column on the detailed Kanban board can get full when we are working on a new feature or service. Since creating and deploying a new release is what moves the stories off the board, the Done column can get long at times. Having an overly-full column on the Kanban board makes it harder to understand the current state of the world (also in Jira it can mean much scrolling). We’re working to get our feature-flagging architecture going which will allow us to release new functionality before exposing it to our customers. As a side effect, this will help us clear out this column more frequently.

The last challenge is that there is still manual work to create releases for the projects that aren’t directly tied to a repository to move the cards from those projects off of the Kanban board. Since there are not usually very many of these stories, a periodic manual release for each of these projects takes care of the issue. Eventually, we will automate this process.

Summary

At AstrumU, we are using a simple Kanban agile process along with some of the Scrum ceremonies to help us organize, prioritize and track our work. We continue to iterate upon this process, but in its current state, it does a good job keeping the distributed product development and data teams informed and coordinated while making priorities, plans and completed work transparent to the rest of the company.

Acknowledgments

I want to give credit to Fedya Skitsko who developed a lot of the early Kanban process and Jira structure that is the basis of our current process and structure.

Transcript of my speech from OPEX Week Summer 2018

I was delighted to be invited to speak and participate on a panel at the OPEX Week Summer conference today. While it is not my specific function, I do learn a lot from understanding other disciplines and industries.

Below is the text of my speech.


In the software industry today, we can change our product daily in response to direct, instantly measured customer feedback. We can trivially give different versions of our products to different customers to see which they like more. We have figured out how to reduce the time from idea to customer value to revenue from years to days or even hours.

Some of you are thinking, “that would be great to be able to do that in my industry.” Some of you are thinking: “what a nightmare, how do you plan, track and manage in that environment?”

The thing is that when I started in the software industry, it didn’t work this way. We would spend months designing and planning, then we would build the new product, then we would ship it to customers, and then we would start on the next product. It would take years. If we misjudged our customer needs, it would take us years to find out and correct the issue.

For software, it was the revolution of the internet that allowed us to break free of our old industrial manufacturing paradigms. It was a two-edged sword though because the platform that enabled us to become more lean and efficient also lowered the bar to competition. The speed of innovation is now the critical aspect of success and survival. Easy access to investment has reduced the value of efficiency to less than zero. Companies can lose money indefinitely if they can show continued growth. If we, the market leaders become complacent, a much smaller competitor can come from nowhere and take our market away instantly. The barriers to entry are now lowered significantly.

What I am describing may seem interesting, academic or even obvious, to some of you. “That’s nice for you” or “too bad for you over in software” you might be thinking, “but my industry is different.” Tell that to the taxis, or the automotive manufacturers, or retail.

Just as we in software improved our agile and lean software development processes by learning from TPS, Deming and the established OPEX practices and literature, we can share what we have learned back with the larger OPEX community today.

This talk is a short talk, so I will focus on one way we’ve found to improve innovation velocity: a true autonomy culture.

For me, an autonomy culture starts with Toyota and its’ Kaizen.

Kaizen pushes responsibility for improvement through the whole organization and puts the decision making closer to where the knowledge is. However, for the companies I know and have spoken to, kaizen is usually used to make efficiency improvements to the process, not to the product itself.

If you want to bring more innovation into the product, you must find how to bring autonomy to more levels of the organization
* empowering teams with access to the customer
* Giving them the ability to perform low-risk experiments to validate their hypotheses
* Using data to inform their decision-making and measure their effectiveness

You are changing the model of the organization from plan/command/control to inform/inspire/measure. It’s a real culture shift. Leadership sets the direction and high-level strategy and each team in the levels below figures out how they should approach their part of achieving that strategy with increasing levels of specificity.

The inform/inspire/measure model was how we worked at Spotify, it was how we evolved to function at Avvo, and this will be how we work at AstrumU as we grow.

If you are hiring smart people, you should be taking advantage of their intelligence and creativity. If you are not hiring intelligent people, you need to look into why you can’t trust the people you hire.

For your teams to be successful, they need access to their customers. They need data. Find ways to instrument your product to give data on real-world use back to your teams. If that isn’t possible, share the data from your user research, industry and market trends, your user testing, competitive analysis and your product focus groups to your whole organization.

Data can also help establish accountability. Work with your teams to develop real data-driven business metrics that they can be uniquely accountable for. Avoid vanity metrics or non-objective ones. Every team should be able to tie what they do back to the core business of the company, even if what they do is support the other teams. Empowering other groups to be more efficient will help drive your core business outcomes.

If your company isn’t data-driven today, you may need to train your teams to understand and utilize data. This training will not be a wasted effort.

At Avvo, we created a data-driven decision framework. We trained everyone in the company in its use. It was our version of a Kaizen card. It required the employee to validate their thinking with data and validate their decision’s success or failure with data as well. As a deliberate side-effect of this effort, data became a central part of our processes and discussions.

Teams armed with the context they need to make smart decisions, and tools they can use to measure outcomes objectively against the broader business goals, can be given more autonomy.

There is one more thing that is needed though before the organization can truly embrace this model: ways to limit the risk of failure.

Innovation requires failure. You can’t do something genuinely new without making mistakes along the way. If we want our companies to be more innovative, we need to reduce the risk of failure. Data reduces risk, but it alone isn’t the answer.

You need to find areas where each of your teams can experiment in the market in limited ways with actual customers. With rapid prototyping tools and limited run manufacturing capabilities this has become increasingly easy over the last decade. Giving teams this ability lets them experiment and learn rapidly by giving them the knowledge they need. In turn, they can innovate without putting the whole company at risk.

What of governance, compliance, oversight, quality and process control? These things are still as vital as they ever were, but the way that they function will need to evolve in an autonomous enterprise. They need to be integrated and intrinsic, part of the DNA so that teams incorporate them naturally into their experiments, and for the areas where this is most critical, the groups may need that expertise integrated into the team structure as opposed to externally applied.

I discuss this with you as a thought exercise, a different way of approaching innovation in your organization. It is working wonders for us over in the software industry. I have spoken with high street banks in the UK, large department stores in the Netherlands, multi-national financial institutions, heavy equipment manufacturers, personal grooming appliance makers and others looking into these ideas of autonomous teams to bring more innovation into their practices.

If it is possible for them, then it is entirely possible for you.

Thank you

Answering some questions about Agile Transformation

I was given a set of questions from a consultant working with a company about to begin a transformation to Agile. They asked if I record my answers for their kick-off meeting. That video is above, but I had written my thoughts down as well for clarity, so I am including that text as well.

How hard it can be to implement an agile model in a company where the old model was more hierarchical and conservative?
It can be extremely challenging if only part of the organization is interested in making the change. If the rest of the company are expecting detailed plans and delivery date commitments and the product development team is working with a more iterative approach, that will create a lot of organizational friction. For any agile transformation to be successful, the whole company has to be supportive and committed.

I don’t think that company hierarchy is necessarily an impediment to a successful agile transformation. As long as the responsibilities and expectations of leadership adapt to the new way of working and that leadership is also committed to the agile transformation. Many organizations with more traditional hierarchies build their products successfully with agile methodologies.

What would be your advice for this team to successfully implement the model? What should they be aware of? Basically, the DOs and DONTs.
Do commit to making the transformation, and understand that it won’t be easy. This will be a culture change for your company. Any culture change follows a path where the excitement of making the change is followed by a period where the individuals and teams struggle to understand how to be productive in the new model. During this time (sometimes called the valley of despair), it seems like the best idea would be to go back to the way things used to be. Push through this time and don’t give up. Bit by bit, things will improve, people will figure out how to operate in the new world and you will end up in a much better place.

One of the ways that teams make the transition to agile is to use a known structured methodology like Scrum. At first, the processes and ceremonies will feel strange and not what you understood agile was supposed to be like. Stick with it. As your teams get better at agile thinking, you can start to decide which elements make sense for you and which you may want to change or drop altogether. Each of these things has a purpose, and understanding the purpose and the value when it works well is important before you decide not to do it. Teams that abandon the parts of the process that they don’t like early on often end up with a very poor understanding of agile. They gain very few of the benefits and may be a lot less efficient.

What are the foundational measures they should follow in your opinion?
Like any organizational culture transformation, there should be some time spent by the whole organization understanding why there is a need to make the change, what the expected outcome from the change is and what the plan is. Time should be spent to make sure that all parts of the organization (especially the teams dependent on the team making the change) are committed.

If there is a smaller team that is mostly independent, that team might try to pilot the switch to agile first, to develop some expertise ahead of the rest of the organization and learn from their experience.

What should they anticipate to succeed?
Anticipate that this may be a longer process than they expected, but the effort is worth it! Anticipate that the change may too big for some people to make, and they may choose to leave or try to prevent the change from happening. Anticipate that it will get progressively easier over time.

Other relevant points you might find useful.
I have been working Agile exclusively for almost 20 years after having spent the first 8 years working in a more traditional way. The reason that I have continued to work agile is that I have seen no better way to deliver software efficiently. I am inherently pragmatic. If I saw a better way to work, I would switch immediately. I haven’t found any yet.

The hardest part of adopting agile is learning the agile mindset and understanding that it doesn’t mean abandoning quality, accountability, documentation, process, planning or tracking to deliverables. It is about finding the right amount of each of those things for the project and no more.

In the end adopting agile is adopting a culture of continuous improvement. A culture of always looking for better ways of doing what you are doing. The way we practice agile today is very different from the way that we did it five years ago. Its adaptability is part of its strengths. It’s fluidity also makes it very difficult to learn. It is absolutely worth the effort though.

I wish you the best of luck on your journey!