How does a 120-year-old insurance company get more value out of its agile transformation in 2 years than a high-tech company that’s been practicing agile for 14 years? Well, it has something to do with bad habits that form when organizations don’t scale agile beyond the team level. Or they coordinate work to include the business and program management roles but don’t focus on best practices and continuous improvement to maintain results.

Here are some common traps organizations can fall into around team-level agile:

The Easy Road

It’s human behavior to take the path of least resistance. In the context of agile, I’ve seen teams and delivery groups (even those that religiously do retrospectives) take the easy route to tackle a problem rather than take on time-consuming — and sometimes contentious — changes to improve how they work. This ultimately leads to technical debt, and worse, unhealthy agile practices.

Developer-only Agile

The whole premise of agile is to connect the business and development to deliver value. Even in companies where strong development teams are killing it with agile, it’s pretty common for those teams to exclude outsiders. When that happens, teams start working in isolation, losing sight of what other teams and the business need, when they need it. Responsiveness, predictability and value delivered quickly become disconnected from market windows and what customers want. Organizations trying to retain valuable programming talent do the same thing — make decisions that keep developers happy instead of thinking about what’s best for their customers and the company.

Managing the Matrix

Enterprises experimenting with agile often try it within existing organizational structures. While agile teams can exist that way for a while, more often than not they end up isolated and can’t consistently deliver the value that the company needs to win in the market.

Developer Musical Chairs

Sustaining dedicated teams over time is key to agile success. When you start moving developers around to solve various problems that pop up, you create an extra learning curve, lower capacity and, sometimes without intending to, make decisions that can derail the features you’re trying to deliver.

Unmanaged Chaos

Companies that start to slack off on disciplined agile practices (like Kanban and Scrum) end up with highly reactive environments. This creates hidden work, high levels of work in process (WiP), lack of focus and even purposeful focus away from the company’s vision. Teams feel helpless and frustrated because they’re constantly playing defense.

Where Do You Start?

Sure, these problems can be overwhelming and prompt organizations to start questioning their investments in agile. But you can get back on track just by getting back to the basics.

Get back to basics. Re-establish great team-level practices (proper Scrum and Kanban), limit WiP and use metrics to help teams stay focused. Create value streams that follow the work, maintain dedicated teams and build strong delivery groups.

Adopt agile at scale. You won’t get to the next level of agile just by doing it at the team level — you need to launch a whole program right from the start. Organize for the work and find the courage to make your company structure part of the transformation. Create an agile center of excellence — and give it authority and funding — that guides the practices and evolution of your organization’s agile teams, delivery groups and people.

Include product and program management. Understand how to build a good agile roadmap and collaborate with your customers. Talk to them not only about what you’re currently delivering but about your future plans — and smooth the flow of work to teams so they’re working on the right things at the right time.

Invest in continuous improvement. Establish a culture of continuous improvement and support it with a mix of qualitative and quantitative measurements. Strategize collaboratively with big room planning that includes everyone in the delivery group. Watch how our customer, Seagate, uses big room planning to speed delivery, save costs and become a predictable engine for the business.

Achieve 4x Improvement

Achieving the true promise of agile (4x improvement) comes by connecting the whole system (not just teams) and making sure you’re always transforming and fine tuning to guide your agile journey.

Remember those two companies I mentioned? By launching its agile transformation at scale from the get-go, the insurance company (the agile rookie), Physicians Mutual, saw a 50-percent increase in major release frequency and the delivery of hundreds of items during the course of just one year. Read the case study. I was directly involved in helping the high-tech agile veteran (Rally) get back to basics to achieve 2x feature output and deliver 100 percent on our roadmap commitments. Proof that getting back to basics can net big benefits.


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