The Agile Way: 6 things I’ve learned this year

I’m a convinced agilist. I know it’s no news and there’s a bunch of us out there but still, I am a little bit more convinced everyday that adopting an agile mindset is the best way to do things. It doesn’t really matter what kind of work you’re doing or which sector you’re in, agility will make things better. I didn’t say easier, but better because do not fool yourself, the journey can be hard and you might have doubts sometimes, but keep going because it’s definitely worth it 🙂

2019 has been full of encountering, experiences, learning and growth and now that the end-of-year holidays are at the doorstep I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve learned and will be reflecting upon to prepare the challenges that are coming next year.

Agile mindset?

Right, let me explain what I mean by that because we might not share the same vision here (and it’s not necessarily a bad thing). From my point of view an agile mindset means that you are willing to challenge what you know, what you do and how you do it and keep a people centric focus, even when it seems to be working fine. Kind of a kill point exercice every now and then to see if people are fulfilled, what you could do differently, try new ways, see what happens (you know: try, learn and adapt).

An agile mindset means that you are willing to challenge what you know, what you do and how you do it and keep a people centric focus, even when it seems to be working fine

Lessons learned

Ok, let’s dig into it. Spoiler alert though, most of it sounds like common sense but it always seems quite obvious once you have the answer right? Or not…anyway, tell me what you think in the comments area 🖊️⬇️

1. It’s not that natural

Yeaaaahhhh, no it’s not! Looks like it should be but it isn’t. And the main reasons are that we’re not really used to it yet and most of the time companies do agile but are not. We are still in a transition phase and even though agility has been around for about 20 years now (a lot more in some sectors but it really became mainstream in the years 2000) we haven’t let go of the old ways yet. I knew there was a lot of work to change things but I was a little surprised to see that even young(er) generations had problems with agility. Most of the time they know about one or two frameworks (Scrum mainly, maybe Kanban or what most people think Kanban is…), sometimes they’ve even used it (efficiently or not) but what I’ve seen is that most people think that you need to apply some kind of Agile Methodology (I know, it hurts even when I write it down, sorry about that) and Voilà, everything is going to be awesome 😱

We spend a lot of energy into answering questions and explaining why it would be interesting to try something new when the current process is not efficient:

  • Working with short iterations is usually better
  • Lack of quality will cost you sooner than you think
  • Creating roadmaps on business impact instead of detailed functionalities is a good practice (thanks John Cutler and Jean-Pierre Lambert for sharing their insights on this point)
  • Give ownership to the people doing the work is you best bet
  • No your job is not to tell them what to do…

And yes, we need to keep doing it, people are paying attention, be patient time is your ally.

2. Don’t be dogmatic

I thought I was strong with this one but it’s trickier than I expected. We all have our beliefs and finding the right balance between pushing an idea that you think is important or just asking questions to let people find their own answer is not always easy. In coaching this is called high position (I tell you what to do) and low position (I just ask open questions). Depending on the context and maturity of the team/organisation you will have to take one or the other (there are levels in between but you get the idea) and no one but your guts and experience can tell you which one. Furthermore you won’t know if your decision was the right one. Let’s say it doesn’t work, would another approach have been more efficient? And if it does works, was it thanks to what you did/said?

One thing is for sure, don’t be dogmatic. There’s never only one correct answer or way of doing things, just choose one that seems to be ok for everyone (or at least one that has no veto) and go for it! You will still be able to change strategies later if needed but you will never know if it can work until you try.

3. Not bottom-up nor top-down

Some people say an agile transformation can only work if it’s a bottom-up process, start with the people doing the work, show everyone that it works, build trust and extend.

Another vision is that it should be top-down (SAFe is a good exemple), first find support from top-level management, work with managers to explain how they might need to change the way they do their job then train the teams and start implementing.

Well like I just said before, you shouldn’t be dogmatic and there’s no correct answer here but from what I’ve experienced doing both might be a good move. The very first thing would be to clarify what is expected from the change, mandatory from the sponsor but important from everyone involved. Then start easy, change little things on both sides like the way people communicate, you might even want to do just retrospectives at the beginning and see how it goes…Mapping the current process is very interesting too, most people are not really aware of it, they just follow it like everyone else, so mapping it will give you a nice work basis. The Value Stream Mapping exercise is of great help for that (link at the end of the article in case you’re interested).

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4. If you forgot the business you messed up big time

Usually when we think of agility we think of IT, but that’s a big mistake. I already wrote an article on that so I won’t talk too much about it here but still, it is a big lesson worth mentioning: we need to work with the business! They are the one spending time on analyzing the clients, the product and trying to figure out what kind of impact we can have to help the company grow. So yeah, changing the way things are getting done without including all the stakeholders in the process will be a huge bottleneck at some point and might create a few conflicts.

The idea is to find solutions together: explain the problem or idea, brainstorm on solutions, find different approaches, align on one of those and test it as soon as possible. Little increments and short cycles will help you learn faster (there are looooots of articles and videos on this topic), get together again and go back to step one using the new information at hand.

5. People will need to talk about it, a lot!

Yup, like a lot a lot…it’s normal, change means stress and generates many questions. Take as much time as necessary to answer them and if you don’t have the answer it’s ok too, just say it and propose to find them together. We’re all on the same boat remember?

I like to think that it’s a good sign when people ask questions and challenge what is proposed. If they don’t it might be a lack of trust and/or transparency (or you’re so good that everyone just trust everything you say, well done!). As I said before you’re not supposed to have all the answers, you’re here to help people find their own way and solutions.

Liberating Structures, Solution Focus, Serious Games…all of those are very useful to help drive discussions and share knowledge. Create a safe space and invite everyone to come to you, let them know you’re available when they need to talk (not always easy but keep some slack in your agenda for that) sometimes just listening is enough to unblock a situation (kind of like the Rubber Duck Debugging technique).

6. Be patient, it takes time!

Last but not least, it will take time and if you don’t take a step back you will get overwhelmed with the situation. There’s a lot of emotional and cognitive workload that goes with your role as an agilist in any company and it can quickly become very hard to handle. The first steps will give results rapidly but a profound transformation to an always changing culture is very difficult and we’re talking years here. Try to focus on little steps, avoid working on several topics at the same time, it gets depressing as nothing really improve and people will make sure to let you know!

Another important thing, you need to talk too 😉 Just like everyone else you will need someone you can share your thoughts, doubts, questions and reflections with. People from your company but from the community as well, go out and see the world, you’re not alone and chances are a lot of other agilists are facing the same difficulties. You can talk about it, share what you’ve already tried and what happened, find other ideas together…grow together. We’re back to try, learn and adapt, not a big surprise I guess.

7. Bonus lesson

Talking about sharing with the community, this year I spent quite some time writing articles. I started on medium (still share my articles there too for now) then moved to a personal blog and it helped a lot! Forces you to go deeper in your thoughts, look for more information, challenge yourself and get more feedback (I don’t get much for now but hey, the exercise is still very interesting). Kind of a personal therapy and I plan on keeping to do it 🧐 I might even get better at it 😄

You should try, I’m sure you have a lot of things to say and you don’t even know it!

A few links

Scrum Life video on roadmaps (in french)

SAFe Implementation Roadmap with it’s top-down approach

The Value Stream Mapping explained

My precedent article on onboarding the business (in french)

Another one (once again in french, sorry guys) that focus on psychological side of the agile coach role

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Leave a comment, like on LinkedIn ðŸ‘ and share! Your help and feedback is important, it helps me to learn and keep improve, thank you ðŸ˜€

Published by Olivier Rouhaud

I'm an Agile Coach, Scrum Master & manager convinced that human centered teams and organisations are the most interesting and efficient!

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