Thriving in an Agile World

Agile methods show great promise, delivering business value in environments where traditional (waterfall) models struggle.  Despite a growing number of success stories, many projects can still be classified as failing or, at the very least, challenged.  Over the years I’ve observed many teams with varying degrees of success.  Of those most successful, I found a few common traits stemming from a fresh mindset both organizationally and individually.

Work Sustain-ably

Work-life balance continues to be a hot button topic in the workplace.  While there’s no magical number of hours in a work week, there should be a consistent flow without major peaks and valleys.  Team commitments are an integral part of maintaining sustainability. A few simple questions are helpful in gauging the health of team commitments:

  • Is the team properly estimating story development and work efforts?
  • Is the commitment made at planning reasonable for the duration of the iteration?
  • Does the team habitually carry over stories or play loose with done criteria?

Another key component is having the right tool set.  While the Agile Manifesto calls for us to favor individuals and interactions over processes and tools, that doesn’t mean we can forsake the latter.  For example, if your defect tracking tool is a spreadsheet that is perpetually locked by other team members and you’re tripping over one another, it’s not sustainable.  Make sure your collaboration tools, your build process, and other tools that support the team are working for you and not against you.

Be the Keeper of the Flame

In its early days, agile had a sort of religious movement vibe (some may have even called it heresy).  Teams that are thriving with agile have preserved this zeal and constantly strive to gain a better understanding of the “why” behind the things they do.  So many of the practices are inter-related and the strength comes from the way these practices reinforce one another.  If somebody proposes cutting a corner or layering on additional steps, the team needs to take a hard look at what problem these changes are trying to solve.  How will adding or removing these steps affect our work?  Does the benefit outweigh any downside? Stay true to the agile principles.

Know the Boundaries

Very few organizations are pure agile from top to bottom and side to side.  Business processes that feed into the teams’ backlog may not operate in an agile fashion.  Regulatory requirements may force ceremonies and artifacts on the team that “aren’t part of agile”.  Production and operations teams may not be prepared for the continuous flow coming out of an agile team.  The teams that thrive are those that can recognize  the boundaries, work to tear them down when possible, where to align, and when to re-adjust all while setting clear expectations along the way.

Putting it into Practice

It’s been said countless times before and it bears repeating: agile is not a silver bullet.  Sometimes external forces knock us off our game and threaten the sustainability of our team’s cadence.  It’s easy to lose sight of the “why” or stumble over the boundaries with other teams and other projects.  The best teams, the ones that are thriving, are the ones that get intentional about how they go about their work.  They recognize and overcome these challenges to deliver real value for their stakeholders and derive great satisfaction from the work they do.

From my experience, the successful teams evolve to a sustainable pace; they stay true to their principles while navigating the boundaries of their organization. As a result, these thriving teams are able to continually deliver true value.

Joe Combs

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