Adopting agile? DON’T start with the agile manifesto

The agile manifesto is arguably the most unhelpful document in the history of technology. There. I’ve said it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with anything it says, and I’m grateful that it challenged conventional methods of software delivery. Not to mention which, it has triggered a much needed re-think about how we all work which is (very gradually) creating much better ways to work.

That said, the manifesto does have some serious issues — to name just a few…

  • It’s not terribly clear (we’ve spent the last 20 years arguing about what agile actually is)
  • It’s never been iterated on (continuous improvement anyone?)
  • Principles are very difficult to put in to practice (enter Scrum)
  • It’s open to (mis)interpretation (“We’re agile, so we don’t plan…”)
  • It tends to focus more on agile delivery and output — building the thing right rather than building the right thing

I could probably go on, but the point I want to make is that as a means to communicate and market agile it falls short. The goal of agility is unclear.

As someone working with businesses and teams to help them adopt agile, the first thing I have to do is sell it. From software engineers to CEOs, I need to be clear on what agile adoption means for them and how they will benefit.

When answering the question “what is agile?”, many doggedly cling to the agile manifesto as a means to explain. I have done that myself in the past, and learned through failure that it doesn’t work. To that end I’ve come up with new ways to answer that big question. While I always tailor my “agile - what & why” pitch to the audience, I thought I’d share the two definitions that I use most often.

Selling Agile to Teams

More often than not, software delivery teams are now expected to work in an “agile way”. And they do so faithfully, but often blindly. They work in sprints, they hold stand ups, they attend retrospectives. But few could articulate the purpose of these activities — they know the what, but not the why.

When engaging with this audience, this is how I define agile:

“The goal of agility is to work in short feedback loops. Short feedback loops are important because they allow us to learn, validate and course correct early.

By course correcting early we can:

  • Avoid waste and increase value by ensuring we’re building the right thing — that ultimately, the products and services we create meet our customers’ needs and drive value for the business.
  • Avoid expensive mistakes and improve quality by ensuring we’re building the thing right. Early validation that our software behaves as expected ensures we’re building reliable, resilient products.

In summary, agility means optimising to work in short feedback loops so we can increase value and improve quality.

And that’s it. If you understand that as the goal of agility there is suddenly a good reason to adopt it — more value + better quality. Secondly, now that you understand what you’re trying to achieve, you can start figuring out how you and your team can work in short feedback loops — instead of just doing what “Scrum says…”.

If you treat working in short feedback loops as your ways of working goal, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Selling Agile to Business Leaders

When it comes to business leaders, I use a different sales pitch. Beyond technology and product, leaders remain pretty confused (and deeply sceptical) about agile.

Your first hurdle to overcome is the belief that agile is exclusively a “tech thing” and doesn’t apply elsewhere. Start prattling on about the agile manifesto at this point and you will alienate your audience pretty fast — and remember that as an agile advocate you’re assumed to be a tech person, so they already think you’re a bit nuts…

When engaging with leaders I use a more holistic definition of agile. This is partly to tailor the benefits to them, but also because the definition needs to make agile relevant to the whole organisation — and to the culture that underpins it.

So my definition for this audience is:

Better: Increase your ROI by creating products and services your customers want

Faster: Reduce lead times to learn faster and realise value sooner

Happier: Increase engagement to attract and retain top talent*

The biggest sell for business leaders is improving ROI — which they’re typically under colossal pressure to do. Highlighting the commercial benefits of agile is the key point to land. Moving faster comes a close second — poor execution is a deep source of frustration. And whilst being happier is not necessarily seen as the primary benefit (sadly), leaders do recognise the logic that better talent tends to produce better results, so keeping good people happy is logical.

*Note: My thanks to Jon Smart on this. His early definitions of agile inspired this and I’ve run with it ever since

Conclusion

The agile manifesto is great, but recognise it for what it is and what it isn’t. If you want to engage people with agile adoption, be clear on the goal and the benefits. Whether you borrow my definitions or use your own, you will likely find that your way of working ultimately does conform to the values of the manifesto, you’ll just get there a hell of a lot quicker.

Has this article piqued your interest? Could I help your business or teams? I am a coach and consultant that helps organisations adopt agility. Find out more about what I do at betterfasterhappier.com.

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