A greenhouse to foster Agile?

Just a few weeks ago I was at an interesting lecture on disruptive innovations. And as one can expect, the evening ended with a classic ‘networking moment’. So I ended up standing at a bar table with complete strangers exchanging names and job titles. I genuinely don’t like that part of such evenings, but I once read that it is considered polite to stay for at least 45 minutes. But just when I approached the socially acceptable time limit and I could leave, I met Richard. 

Richard was a genuinely nice guy in his mid-forties, you know the kind you want as a neighbor; reliable, interested, but not overly curious. After exchanging pleasantries and ‘what do you do for a living’, Richard was happy and somewhat proud to tell me that his company went Agile over a year ago. Me being a project management consultant, I was of course very curious what had actually changed in his organization. So I took another glass of wine and listened to Richard telling me how he perceived the transition to Agile.

First of all, Richard said, there was a lot less ‘paperwork’ involved in projects. No lengthy project charters anymore and no more detailed schedules for the months to come. Large projects were broken up in shorter sprints so there was no more need for 500-lines schedules anyway. Secondly, there are no more project managers. You have coaches and masters, but that’s it. No one can call himself a manager anymore, the project is ‘managed’ by the team. Another novelty Richard was quite enthusiastic about, was the daily stand-up meeting. It helped to align people on the goals and to get a shared view on the project status quite rapidly. Although I am familiar with the Scrum methodology I listened willingly to Richard elaborating on bringing the customer perspective in the project, feedback and shippable products. His enthusiasm was catching and one could tell Richard truly enjoyed educating me on what it meant to be Agile, at least for his organization.

When he was finished explaining me the details of his organization’s way of working, I asked him if anything had actually changed in the organization? He looked surprised, had he just not explained all the changes that had taken place? So I rephrased, and asked him what had improved?  Was the quality of the products higher now? Or were the throughput times of the projects shorter? Or did they have a shorter time to market? Or anything else that would be considered an improvement in the productivity of the organization? Well, Richard said, he had never thought about it like that, but if he was honest he didn’t feel that any of those goals were met. When being asked why, he said he thought the reason would be that upper management still didn’t cut the red tape. For instance, there had to be meeting minutes of every stand-up meeting to be sent to the PMO before noon, so the PMO could make a daily digest for the management team of the project’s progress. Richard told me, and I use his words, in fact they now worked differently, but they didn’t really change the way they work. And in a number of ways that’s a pity if you look at the investments that were made to implement Agile.

But why am I telling you this? Because as I had to do to Richard, I have to explain to a lot of customers that Scrum or other Agile methodologies can leverage an organization’s potential. But those benefits will not be realized if you do not transform the whole of your organization. Your organization is the greenhouse in which your Agile methodology flourishes or withers. But as in a real greenhouse you need the optimal mix of temperature, light and soil. For your organization to be truly Agile, you will need to take a deep dive into your Governance, People and Processes.

For example, if all your Processes are still heavily budget and controlling driven, it will be very difficult to create a project environment where swift decisions can be made. So it is important to take a good look at all your processes that might impact projects. But sometimes the processes are just documents written down a long time ago, it’s crucial to also look at the People and how they actually work. It will be key to get them beyond the point of “we’ve always done it this way”, not just on paper, but also in practice. Are they properly motivated and supported to adapt an Agile way of working? And last but not least, to get back to Richard’s example: how is the Governance structured in the organization? It’s about roles and responsibilities, but also about the management style. One key word in any Agile environment is “Trust”. The agility of an organization depends on the fact whether the people closest to the problem (or project) can take the decisions, so they need to be empowered, both with the decision making authority as well as with the knowledge and ability to take the right decisions. If the management (what level it might be) does not trust the people, the benefits of Agile will never be realized. Of course for all three dimensions there are more indicators that need to be evaluated and/or changed. Because without the right mix of Governance, People and Processes any transformation to going Agile will be nothing more than doing things a bit differently, but without real benefits for you and your organization.

So if you plan to go Agile, please keep in mind that it is about more than just introducing some new concepts; it is about changing how everybody in your organization thinks.

Want to know if you’re ready? We organize a workshop this summer on the topic to assess the Agile readiness of your organization in much more detail. And yes, there will also be bar tables and drinks at the end. I’m not sure Richard will show up, but I hope to see you there!

Sign up and we'll keep you posted