Agile: a contradiction in terms

Steve LawrenceToday’s guest post is from Stephen Lawrence – stream chair for the ‘Measure & Learn’ content stream at Agile Australia 2014.

Steve is the Lead Agile Coach for Rally Software across Asia Pacific where he coaches and advises customers on Agile best practice and how to continue to evolve on their Agile journeys.


As part of the lead-up to this year’s Agile Australia, I started thinking about conversations with fellow Agilists and organisations and the common concerns we share.

One thing we’ve noticed is that there is a consistent theme that agility, a customer focus, and a vague reference to “transformation” will appear somewhere on an executive’s list. Whereas agile and transformation seem to be buzzwords of choice, we were struck by some concern about whether there is a misalignment between what we – the practitioners – think they mean and what the senior executives actually want.

To put it simply these concepts aren’t simply glib phrases. Agility, transformation and a customer focus are individual elements that, when combined, are a powerful influence on a business’s performance.

The time of the customer
Accessibility of information thanks to technology (think mobile devices, social channels) and the variety of choices that come with a global market have redefined the relationship between vendors and customers. If a vendor can’t or won’t provide the right goods, services and overall experience, the customer can always find what they want elsewhere.

This has forced companies to become more customer-aware. Rather than dictating terms or assuming they know best, vendors now have to listen to their customers, respond to their needs and anticipate their wants.

All of this used to be considered a marketing issue. Now, the idea of delivering a great customer experience becomes a shared responsibility across the organisation. Today, the customer needs must be a central consideration in every project, idea or initiative.

Being agile in a changing world
Given the audience for this blog, it would be nice to think everyone has a consistent understanding of this concept. But, here’s my two cents worth. Agility is a NOT a noun, it is actually a verb. We should stop saying, “Yes, we are Agile” and start thinking about being agile. Agile is not the destination and a stop point; agile is the journey and, in my opinion, one that I don’t think ever ends. To even start thinking you are agile, the word ‘Agile’ actually disappears and the concepts simply become the way you work, part of your culture and way of thinking.

Don’t listen to those that say, “Hey, that’s not Agile.” Instead, refer back to the original concepts of the Agile Manifesto and identify what you are doing against those 12 key principles. Concentrate on how to optimise a system for the most efficient and effective delivery of value to our customer and our stakeholders. So, my recommendation: be brave trust your instincts, understand the 12 principles of the Manifesto and be agile.

Don’t limit your vision
In the Agile world, “transformation” is probably the least understood of the three buzzwords, as there appear to be two quite different interpretations of its meaning.

One view is that transformation occurs when the IT department is optimised to deliver maximum value, quality and throughput. The tools and concepts of Agile appeal to executives with this view because of the promise of continuous delivery, speed and efficiency. They also like the idea of dedicated, close-knit teams, ready to respond to any new requirements.

While this idea is sound and delivers some benefit, I believe it limits the ability to deliver true value to the enterprise and the customer.

The alternative definition is the one I personally prefer because it goes far beyond IT. It calls for a business transformation of how the organisation conducts business, from IT to legal, HR, operations, finance and more. Much bigger in scope, this view of transformation also offers the potential for far greater rewards.

To get maximum value from delivery systems (yes, that is systems – the software delivery teams are only part of the greater system), it’s important to consider all the elements that help to make up the bigger picture. A customer focus is the essential foundation and the basis of the business. Then, layer on the culture, executive support, skills and personalities, teams, and an organisational structure to support the value driven (agile) approach, because it is through a value driven and agile approach at all levels and departments that the path to transformation – and far-reaching business benefit – begins.

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