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New Agile fluency steps build four-star teams

Experts Diana Larsen and James Shore explain the four stages of Agile fluency, a model for Agile teams seeking more effective software development.

Agile experts James Shore and Diana Larsen have come up with a roadmap for Agile teams seeking to improve their effectiveness. Known as "Agile fluency," the approach defines four distinct stages of practice for Agile teams, ranging from one to four stars. Agile teams practicing at each stage have a unique focus:

  • One-star teams invest in the team way of working.
  • Two-star teams invest in technical skills development.
  • Three-star teams incorporate business experts as full-time members.
  • Four-star teams contribute to enterprise-wide success.

It's not four stars or you've failed. We want to make that explicit.

Diana Larsen,
partner, FutureWorks Consulting LLC

While each stage builds on the previous one, a team's goal is not necessarily to work its way to the top. Four-star Agile teams are rare, and attaining that level is largely an aspiration, according to Larsen and Shore. At the same time, one-star teams deliver results that are sufficient for some organizations. "There are many ways of succeeding with Agile," said Larsen, a partner at FutureWorks Consulting LLC. "It's not four stars or you've failed. We want to make that explicit." Here, Shore and Larsen explain the challenges and benefits of each of the four stages of Agile fluency.

What is Agile fluency?

"Fluency" is how a team develops software when it's under pressure, according to Shore and Larsen. "Anyone can follow a set of practices when given time to focus in a classroom; true fluency is a skillful, routine practice that persists when your mind is distracted with other things," they said.

The value of Agile fluency is twofold. First, it lays out in concrete terms how to make Agile teams more effective -- moving from one to two stars, for example. Second, the concept of Agile fluency provides a reality check for what it takes to realize the benefits of any Agile practice. "Broadly speaking, Agile is often sold as a way for software development teams to quickly shift to meet business needs," said Shore, an Agile consultant and co-author of The Art of Agile Development. But to achieve that specific benefit -- the ability to respond rapidly to business changes -- a team would have to practice Agile at the three-star level of fluency, he said. The three-star level stipulates, among other things, that Agile teams incorporate as full-time members business experts who have deep knowledge about the company's competitive marketplace. "That is pretty challenging," he added. And it usually requires high-level permission from the organization, he said.

One-star Agile fluency

The key characteristic of the first stage of Agile fluency is the focus on the team. "You are moving away from a group of individual contributors and creating a team culture," said Larsen, co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! This shift takes anywhere from two to six months, and requires a thoughtful approach to selecting members with the right skills and background and a willingness to work together, she said. "It's a different way of thinking of about how you organize the work that needs to be done." Teams at the one-star level of Agile fluency sometimes engage outside coaches -- a Scrum master, or the equivalent -- to help foster the team way of working. One-star teams focus on business value and report progress from that perspective. "It's not about the code they are writing, it's about the product they are shipping," she added. In return, the organization gains visibility into what teams are working on.

Two-star Agile fluency

Having mastered the team way of working, two-star teams invest heavily in technical skills development. "They have figured out how they are going to get the work done, and now they're asking whether they have the technical chops to deliver," Shore said. Two-star teams emphasize getting all members up to speed on Agile engineering practices: continuous integration, test-driven development and pair programming, among others, he said. Although productivity might appear to decrease as the team works to improve its skills, ultimately two-star teams produce more work with lower defect rates, he added. He often sees how this investment in technical skills can benefit teams practicing Agile at the one-star level, he said. "They didn't know there was anything more."

Three-star Agile fluency

A defining characteristic of three-star teams is that they include business experts as full-time members, Larsen said. "That might be a product developer, a product manager, a business analyst, or staff from marketing and sales." The most effective three-star teams don't hire new employees to bring business expertise on board, she said: "They prefer employees who have been with the company for years and possess a deep knowledge of the both the business and the marketplace. They want someone who will trust the technical capabilities of the team, and work together with the whole team." This is challenging because it requires a commitment to Agile at the highest level of the business. But the payoff for three-star Agile teams is big. Their broad-based expertise enables them to deliver products that meet business objectives, market needs and user expectations, according to Shore and Larsen.

Only a small percentage of Agile teams operate at the three-star level. When Shore and Larsen present their fluency model to audiences at Agile conferences, typically only 5% of attendees meet the three-star requirements, they said.

Four-star Agile fluency

If achieving three-star Agile fluency is challenging, attaining the four-star level is rare. "Four-star Agile fluency is meant to be aspirational," Larsen said. Organizations that reach this level are typically small. They are often startups and/or software companies, which pride themselves on being on the leading edge of innovation, she said. Four-star Agile teams are so closely aligned with the business that every process and every policy within the company supports working in Agile. Instead of supporting the business and aligning themselves with the business, Agile teams at this level contribute directly to producing products, Larsen and Shore say. "We do see organizations approaching four stars, but very few operate at that level."

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