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Adopting Agile: Eight traction tips to make Agile development stick

Agile transition isn't easy. The tendency may be to revert back to traditional methods once the going gets tough, though experts encourage organizations to stick with it. In this tip, we learn eight tips for Agile traction recommended by Howard Deiner in his presentation, "How to make sure Agile sticks," presented at the Mile High Agile Conference in Denver.

Agile’s the great buzz word these days, but how many people are really practicing Agile and for how long? When the going gets tough, do they revert back to familiar, traditional habits? At the inaugural Mile High Agile conference, keynote speaker Jean Tabaka encouraged attendees to “lean in,” and to keep practicing Agile even when the going gets hard. Later that day, Howard Deiner of Deinersoft, Inc. gave a presentation entitled, “How to make sure that Agile sticks,” giving eight “traction ideas” that will help make your Agile transition successfully sticky.

Speak business benefits

One of the first rules of thumb in Agile adoption is to ensure you have your leadership on board. In order to do this effectively, you need to speak the language the executives care about: business benefits. Managers may be wary of ideas such as self-organizing teams or switching methodologies without some evidence that Agile is going to solve their business problems.

Deiner suggests, “Try couching your message less in terms of technology and more in terms of business value” with facts and statistics.

Use lean terminology

Though many executives may not know or want to know the details of software development methodologies, they often are quite familiar the lean production model popularized by Toyota in the 1990’s. Making your case for Agile using lean terminology may go far in winning the hearts and minds of management. The four basic lean principles include:

  • Add nothing but value (eliminate waste)
  • Center on the people who add value
  • Flow value from demand (delay commitment)
  • Optimize across organizations

The seven types of waste identified in lean (overproduction, inventory, extra processing, motion, defects, waiting and transportation) can be found in software development. By identifying areas of waste and how those can be eliminated with an Agile methodology, many business people will readily jump on the Agile bandwagon.

Give trust and honesty a chance

Agile development changes the old “command and control” management model to a model that is collaborative and “people-centric.” The Agile model stresses transparency, allowing employees “non-punitive accountability.” In order for this type of environment to thrive, trust and honesty must be present.

Management must trust their staff and empower them to take risks and step out of their comfort zones without fears of retribution. Deiner quoted one of America’s best known CEOs Jack Welch as saying, “…leaders establish trust with candor, transparency and credit. When leaders do not do

this, they foster an environment of suspicion.”

Banish cargo cultism

Deiner described “cargo cultism” as an attitude of one in which people ask for a checklist of things to do that will make them “Agile” rather than using their minds to come up with the unique version of Agile that will fit their organization.

The term “cargo cult” originated from Richard Feynman who spoke of “Cargo Cult Science” at the 1974 Caltech commencement ceremony. Feynman described a “cargo cult” of people who saw airplanes loaded with goods, so they built runways, but no planes landed. Feynman said, “So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.”

There is no cookbook that will tell you exactly what you need to do to be successful with Agile. It is not simply about following a spelled-out process. You need to think and continually adapt, adding the essential “ingredients” that will make Agile work for your team.

Avoid “Scrummerfall”

“Scrummerfall” is the term Deiner used to describe projects that claim to be Scrum, but are still using waterfall approaches. Four examples he gave were:

  • The “waterfall process hiding inside Agile terminology.” Iterations are used, but development still progresses in a traditional fashion.
  • The component-based development model, where we build horizontal layers rather than vertical feature-based development.
  • Teams of specialists that work in an assembly-line fashion.
  • Using Agile for development, but using waterfall for testing.

Get the roles right

Deiner spoke of the importance of having the right people, particularly for the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles in a Scrum environment.

He warned first of the danger of “Product Owner by proxy,” where someone has delegated authority, because the person who should be making the decisions about the business is too busy. Another variation is the “committee of product owners” leading to poor and slow decisions. “Without a strong Product Owner who has the time and interest in making the project succeed, you are pretty much guaranteeing that your project will fail,” says Deiner.

Similarly, it’s important to have a dedicated Scrum Master who understands and has the right skill-set for that role. Too often, organizations use a “matrix” model where Scrum Masters have multiple teams to facilitate, or they ask a technical lead or worse, the Product Owner, to wear two hats.

Don’t plan to fail with the wrong setting

It’s important with Agile transformation to start with the right project. It’s not a good idea to start with a project that’s too critical and have unrealistic expectations about being able to turn around a troubled project.

The types of projects Deiner warned against using as your initial transformation project into Agile included:

  • Projects which are already late.
  • Projects which are so critical that should they fail, there will be serious business implications.
  • Projects that have fixed deliverables on a fixed timeline with fixed resources.
  • Projects that have already picked a process tool and have all roles prefilled, even before training.

Agile transformation takes time. Use retrospectives to learn from each project.

Start with basic training, then coach

Deiner’s final point stressed the importance of training and the difference between training and coaching. He stressed spending the time to make sure the entire organization is trained, including the delivery team, the management team and all stakeholders. More detailed training should be provided for Scrum Masters and Product Owners, but everyone needs a foundation.

Training won’t be enough for those with no experience. Coaches should be used to help motivate and teach the team how to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to their project.

Transitioning to Agile isn’t easy, but with these eight traction tips, your organization will stick with it until it becomes a part of your culture and brings you the success you’re looking for.

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