Being Agile in a Non-Agile World
Working in a high-performing agile team is a blessing and a curse. While things may not always be perfect, forward motion is a guarantee. More importantly, you are not pausing every day to reevaluate the decision that led you to your current state. Things may not always be smooth, but that's a function of the chaos in the world.
The problems set in when you work with parts of the organization that are not agile. The attitudes and flexibility that you take for granted are missing. They introduce processes that seem designed to slow the flow of work because they cannot keep pace. The result is your team's agility is constrained by everyone around you's lack of agility.
Agile Is More Than Scrum
Agile is more than Scrum. It is more than Scrum-But (as in “we do Scrum, but not this part”). Agile is a mindset where work is prioritized as it comes in, along with previously identified work. The team always tackles the most important work first. When things work well, you can keep up with the changes happening around you and produce real value on a steady cadence.
There is more to agile than having daily stand-ups and grooming stories. Everyone must adapt to the inevitable changes. A new feature set may only be 60% delivered when a new, high-priority task arises. The new item is important enough to require attention before the team can complete the remaining 40% of the preceding feature set. Some people will find this frustrating, but the improved responsiveness makes a difference to the business.
Which highlights another key to successful agile delivery: The organization around your team must also be agile and understand the organization's priorities. Communication is key. This goes beyond making your story board public. It means making sure your product owner shares why priorities are defined the way they are. That allows groups to make their business case for the criticality of the work.
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When Others Are Not Agile
Real problems enter the fray when external restraints and blockers come into the mix. No matter how well an agile team is working together, running into a wall placed by another team slows things to a crawl. Nothing is quite as frustrating as identifying an external dependency in the middle of a job, and being told to fill out a request form so your request can be considered at the next monthly meeting.
There are often reasons for this. The other team may be in the midst of a large effort that prohibits introducing any changes until it is completed. Perhaps the group is so overwhelmed that they created a process firewall to control things. Regardless of the reason, your team’s most important piece of work has been put on pause.
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Managing in a Not Always Agile World
This is when you need to pull some old-fashioned management techniques out. The first step is to remember that anger and frustration will only make the problem worse — if not in the short-term, then definitely in the long-term.
Agile teams can adapt by make immediately identifying external dependencies when new work comes in. Then create separate work streams to understand and resolve those dependencies before your team puts any further effort into the assigned work. The mechanics of how will vary upon the dependency itself and the organization. The key is to be agile and adapt to each blocker.
An important way to help others become more agile is to model agile behavior. Be responsive and flexible when supporting other teams. If a request comes to your team, explore the details and prioritize appropriately. Share that information with the requester, explain why it may be delayed, and tell them the person they should speak with to get their item moved up in the queue.
Agile Is a Mindset
Whenever you hit a wall that feels restrictive, remember the other team is doing the best they can (even if it has been six months). Instead of getting upset, learn about their constraints and map them as part of the environment. Then think of new things to do.
Nothing spreads agile adoption like success. As painful as it may be at times, being agile will still deliver better results over time, even when other groups are not working the same way. Leadership will want to build on that success. When they do, be sure to let them know agile is a mindset. Sometimes, that mindset needs to adapt to dealing with the non-agile parts of the world.
About the Author
Laurence Hart is a director of consulting services at CGI Federal, with a focus on leading digital transformation efforts that drive his clients’ success. A proven leader in content management and information governance, Laurence has over two decades of experience solving the challenges organizations face as they implement and deploy information solutions.