Focusing Large Scale Agile Transformation

With all the hype surrounding the new ways of working (though calling them ‘new’ is dubious at best), you can still find some dinosaur playing the old game. Fixed scope software projects, infrastructure changes, provisioning of new services – all done the old way: loaded with project managers fighting over ‘resources,’ massive multitasking, and complete obscurity of accountability. Yeah, it still happens. I find it amazing that companies with core parts working like this are still afloat. 

The moment they notice their momentum is not limitless, the new begins. Sooner or later, large businesses realize that change is necessary. Then the transformation begins. I will not go into specific frameworks or approaches (though you can see my view on the best Agile framework in existence), but areas of focus.

As an agile coach, who should you work with the most?

The typical answer is obvious – put your effort on teams. After all, there can be hundreds of them. Even a large team of seasoned coaches will need quite a while to equip them with minimal viable agility, not to mention doing it right. Though it’s hard to expect an agile coach with any work ethic whatsoever to stop at the bare essentials, they will be pressured just to get it done. According to the plan. On time. Waterfalling Agile transformation will never get old.

Not to mention that focusing on teams will not yield the best results. Just think about it – as per the Agile onion idea, it’s not really about Scrum, Kanban, or (God forbid) Jira. These are just a means to an end, nothing but tools. Sure, you can train two hundred teams in Scrum, but unless you have very assertive and mature Scrum Masters with a mandate to do something useful, nothing will change. No increase in effectiveness. No shortening time to market. No twice the software in half the time.

For sure, though, your organization will become leaner. Your best people, those of the highest market value, will get frustrated with false promises and transformational tornadoes and quit. If that’s what you’re after – way to go!

Back to business – if transformation is not about the way teams work, what is it about? It’s the mythical mindset, which means what you should aim at is a cultural change, not process and tools one. And who shapes the culture? Everyone above the teams in the pyramid. Line managers, their managers, group managers, directors, executives. Culture radiates down from the top and is almost impossible to change bottom-up – and every attempt to do so will inevitably raise the bar of frustration on all sides.

Where should you focus your transformational effort first? All the management impacting teams (it will usually go higher than you expect). They should be the first to realize that multitasking is often a waste of time and money. They should measure their lead times and actively work on shortening them. They should do daily meetings and hold retrospectives. They should have transparent backlogs. Otherwise, they will be rightly perceived as fake, pushing yet another brilliant idea to their teams.

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln, weirdly relevant

The best thing is that investing some time to work on management first will shorten the duration of the whole transformation. The culture and environment for teams to become Agile will already be there – no disappointments, no surprises, no frustration. I can’t think of a reason not to do it – and if you can, comment here (or PM me here).

Okay, there may be one reason – if you don’t want to transform. 

That’s always an option: comfortable, safe, short-lived.

Just Another Sunday

There’s a big project I’m working on in my life. While it’s too early to share more details, I can only say that hardly anything I did before was as exciting to me. I devote every available hour of my private life to this effort, which says a lot. There are no off days for me, not for a few months to come. Being myself, I even planned some time for planning and retrospective sessions. I started the execution just last Sunday, with specific actions roughly scheduled for the whole first week.

The very first day was, of course, planned with far greater precision. Four hours of scouting locations and setups for video-shooting, four hours editing texts, twelve kilometres run in the morning. I had all the data to make my estimates precise enough to have it done properly.

Halfway through the day, everything looked fine. I did my run, got proper lunch, did all the video related stuff. All that was left was writing.

Which is where you’d expect me to mention procrastination. Or bore you to death with writer’s block. Or be philosophical about how I realized my project was irrelevant to the existence of Universe.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I procrastinated for quite a while in my life and, funnily enough, video to Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’ pushed me to deal with this kind of attitude once and for all. Writer’s block ended once I discovered that inspiration, somehow, usually found me working. And my project will make its ding on the Universe.

What happened then?

The amazing unpredictability of reality hit me with a hammer.

As I was driving back from the video scouting, I noticed a car in front of me changing two lanes at a time really fast. That wouldn’t be that surprising as, despite noticeable improvement over last decade, Eastern European driving culture still needs perfecting. Thing is, changing lanes ended on a side of another car, with loud bang and wild manoeuvring as the culprit fishtailed himself. Luckily, none of the vehicles was badly harmed and both remained fully driveable. Such minor collision would usually be just a nuisance and that’s what I was expecting. As I coasted to leave my contact details to the victim, the unthinkable happened.

Apparently, this was a hit and run situation. Culprit sped away from the scene. I’ve seen my fair share of car crashes, but never anything like it.

At this very moment, my precise project plan disappeared. Witnessing such an injustice, I forgot about it altogether, as yet another driver did.

We chased the hitting car for a few minutes, until we managed to block him at the intersection. As we got to the driver yelling to let him drive off, we noticed he was heavily drunk. We managed to get his keys and called the police.

The whole process, from the collision to the moment when we were done with all the formalities took well over three hours. My schedule for the Sunday was no longer an option. My project, however realistically I attempted to plan it, scored a serious delay on the very first day.

And I’m incredibly grateful for it.

Plans, even for a very near future, are always based on our expectations of how the reality would unveil. Most of the time it gets close enough to be correct, maybe with some minimal margin for error factored in. In some other cases, though, it gets far off.

With a project lasting a hundred days and several deliverables expected – I may assume it would happen a lot. So, how can I prepare? Here’s what I did later that Sunday:

  1. I made a visible indicator of my deliverables, their progress, and the timeline.
  2. Used many yellow post-it notes to write down the actions needed to complete first deliverable.
  3. Used quite a few blue post-it notes to write down deliverables further down the road.
  4. Created a to-do list for just the nearest future, think day or two.

Every morning, I run a simple Kanban-style exercise:

  1. Review and update ‘the big picture’ stats.
  2. Move completed action items (post-it notes) to done column. Those struck by reality get back to the pool, with specific comment.
  3. Tackle the to-do items one by one along the day.
  4. Rinse, repeat.

Benefits to this approach, as I can see them, are:

  • I constantly remind myself of the big picture and adapt my daily plans accordingly.
  • I am not over-planning – only the nearest future is properly broken down to items.
  • I have all the flexibility I could ever wish for.
  • I don’t need to use my resilience, as failure to meet the daily schedule doesn’t jeopardize the plan as a whole.
  • The best thing is, my progress is actually faster than expected. Long-term planning makes one cautious – which is unnecessary for daily bursts of action.

All courtesy of one idiot driver tormenting the streets on just another Sunday. Guess I should thank him. I don’t think I’d like visiting prison, though.

Change is constant, omnipotent and unavoidable. Don’t fool yourself thinking you can plan for everything. Accept reality and adapt your approach to it first, conquest the world later.