Agility is a new core competency of the modern business. But how does an established enterprise become agile? We talked about it with Anna Russo, our Program Management Executive Director and Daniela Cecchinelli, Application Development Sr Manager
Being agile means addressing the change promptly while keeping your work on course and your clients satisfied. It’s not just a process, it’s a culture that needs to be built in the very core of a company, into its strategy, technology and above all people. Anna and Daniela, the forerunners of this important shift in Neomobile, give us the insider’s perspective
How has agile changed the landscape of modern business development? What triggered the giant leap from small teams to entire enterprises that are becoming agile?
Daniela: To answer this question we need to quickly go back in time, when agile was created. The values and principles used by those who signed the Agile manifesto, was their way of saying “this is how we want to work”. This set of values initiated creation of different possibilities to use agile on various levels. But with its implementation in single teams or IT departments, a series of potential issues emerged, because with one lonely agile team within a company, you’re only optimizing locally. What is necessary is actually to optimize the entire system thus the importance of the introduction of Lean Development with its own set of principles and practices. Moreover since 2004 a number of agile scaling for enterprise world was created, such as SAFe, DAD, LeSS. I believe that the opportunities offered by LeSS are more successful in context similar to Neomobile.
This is why I completely agree with LeSS founder Craig Larman who said “If you want to really change culture, you have to start with changing structure”.
Anna: I would just add that probably the main reason why agile was embraced by enterprises is because of its values and principles, that are practically universal and can be applied to almost any kind of environment, work and non-work related. Once people in small teams start in experimenting a different way of working and thinking, feeling them motivated and engaged as well as more productive, it is not so difficult imaging a leap towards the entire organization. It is like a virus, positive of course! As we like to remember in Neomobile what Agilists say “Agile is a way of being and not a way of working”.
Daniela: Exactly! Don’t do Agile, be Agile!
What are the main barriers and obstacles that organizations face in the battle to become more ‘agile’?
Anna: Above all it is resistance to change the mindset because it means “breaking the late status quo”. In order to change you need to step out of your comfort zone of course, and reach out to new experiences and challenges. Another important obstacle is also related to a specific mindset based on what is often called the culture of push, deeply-rooted in all non-agile companies. The idea that the performance will improve if you’re constantly “breathing behind somebody’s neck” and hustling them, needs to be completely eliminated. However, changing how people are used to think is not easy at all.
One more obstacle is related to the concepts of productivity and efficiency and therefore the concept of Individual performance. Entire businesses are based on the performance of individuals and constant engagement, where you need to do something all the time, not every time related to the real value of what has been produced! On the other hand in the past few months we have been exploring the Lean metaphor of the relay race, and the concept that we adopted is “watch the baton, not the runners”. A Lean Agile approach is based on reducing wastes and create something on Value from concept to cash, focusing on the goal and not of the single task. With these approaches we aimed to reduce the multitasking and obtain a better effectiveness of the work driven by value.
Daniela: There is also the so called people side of the agile change, especially when it comes to the status of everyone in the company. The agile team has just developers, there’s no need to label them junior or senior, and each team member must simply know their role and should be paid accordingly as being part of a cross-functional and self-organizing team.
2 of 12 principles of Agile explain it perfectly:
Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
The goal is to remove all the external obstacles, allow them to achieve the sustainable peace around them, and that’s when they will be completely focused and motivated.
By enabling the forming of Lean Agile organization we are de facto creating a learning organization; this represents a cultural clash against a short term mentality.
It’s well known that customers will not wait too long for a company to change. How to reconcile the change process with the ongoing activities?
Daniela: We didn’t have a day of delay! We did learning by doing, of course let’s say that on day one people were a bit confused, but we immediately started with trainings and the running business never stopped.
Anna: There was a natural period of adaptation and comprehension of new concepts and ideas, but it was parallel to the ongoing activities.
Daniela: Well, it also depends on the type of agile you are implementing. For example Scrum team drastically changed the way of working overnight, and from day one they started using the new framework, with the support from our agile Coaches. On the other hand, Kanban teams had trainings and they adapted less rapidly, following the nature of Kanban itself: the continuous learning and growth that allows you to make mistakes and then learn from them in order to focus on the right issues. Teams in Neomobile that started using these new frameworks are already giving us good feedbacks on time savings during problem resolution, and a higher level of collaboration.
Anna: The results also show increased value of the completed tasks. So coming back to the question, the best way to reconcile the change process with the ongoing activities is actually in the choice of the activities considering their importance and value. This methodology allows us to understand how to determine the priority of a project or feature and to choose the right ones in order to maximize the ROI. For each feature you need to ask yourself, do I really need it? Is it really driven by value delivery or risk reduction? If the answer is yes, just go for it, if the answer is no, remove it or move to the tail of the backlog.
It’s often heard that speed wins in business, and perfection gets second place. Would you agree?
Daniela: I would say the exact contrary, first comes the quality and even if you go slower. There is the misconception actually that agile promotes the speed since it’s focused on self-organizing in order to respond to change in the quickest possible way, but not necessarily to work faster. So we are talking about velocity in responding to change, but never disregarding the quality. Without the quality you have nothing and in fact one of the most important Lean concept is related to intrinsic and extrinsic quality.
Anna: I completely agree on this point with Daniela. And we can quote one of the agile principles:
Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility
It is also important to stress that “responding to change over following a plan” is correct, but we need to consider the context. For example in the digital industry, that we can define a chaotic environment, being able to respond to change quickly is crucial, but the quality remains fundamental in the long-term. To be more explicit, in the Lean Startup approach sometimes we can reduce our quality standards in order to obtain a fast learning feedback loop: BUILD-MEASURE-LEARN. Obviously when we are back to our products delivery we need to have the highest quality standard related to the specific context.
Tell us a bit more about the importance of trust in agile teams and how to establish it
Daniela: Trust is the core value of agile and it is linked to the principle of self-organizing team to achieve the goal agreed with the Product Owner. Agile software development is a cooperative game:
The team must take joint responsibility for their work and be accountable for the Product Owner;
The Product Owner must trust the work that the team will be committed for in terms of its Definition of Done and how the work will be performed.
The organization must trust and empower the Agile teams abandoning the old “command and control” behavior. In fact, people are treated with respect if they ask for help or disagree with someone, and it is exactly the opposite of what happens in the “push” culture.
Anna: Trust is one of my personal key values and in Agile it is almost everything: the enabler of team working, people interaction and how they help each other. In our experience we have understood that lack of trust inside an organization is the root cause of many issues that can even affect people’s motivation and company results.
Daniela: I have to add that trust of course is not the only value that agile promotes. Other fundamental values are respect, courage, openness and transparency, just to mention some of them.
Anna: And all of them are necessary for a cultural change of the entire company. Furthermore, in order to make these values flourish you need to have a set of working agreements that create a healthy working environment.
Which are the main Agile approaches that organization similar to Neomobile typically embrace?
Daniela: The main Agile approaches used are Scrum and Kanban. Both are Lean and Agile and have the general mind-set “less is more”.
Scrum is more prescriptive and in Sutherland’s words, it can be considered the only structured process tool that can guarantee happiness.
Scrum constrains you to have time boxed iterations called sprints, cross-functional and self-organizing teams and prescribes 3 roles: Product Owner (sets product vision & priorities), Team (implements the product) and Scrum Master (removes impediments and provides process leadership).
We can say that a Scrum iteration is one single time boxed cadence combining three different activities: planning, process improvement, and (ideally) release.
Kanban doesn’t prescribe any roles, the only constrains are: use visible boards (visualize your Flow) and limit the size of your queues (Limit your Work In Process) forcing a Pull process.
Once you have WIP limits in place you can start measuring and predicting lead time, i.e. the average time for an item to move all the way across the board. Having predictable lead times allows you to commit to SLAs (service-level agreements) and make realistic release plans.
In Kanban you can choose when to do planning, process improvement, and release.
Anna: Both approaches are empirical in the sense that you can experiment the process and customize it to your environment, but neither Scrum nor Kanban provide all the answers – they just give you a basic set of constraints to drive your own process improvement.
There are also many names for this empirical approaches: Kaizen (continuous improvement in Lean), Inspect & Adapt (in Scrum), Empirical Process Control, or why not The Scientific Method.
Which are the main challenges an agile organization needs to face to compete at a global level?
Daniela: In my opinion the main challenge is follow a change driven approach like Lean Start-up, where stressing the concept of Build-Measure-Learn cycle an organization can turn ideas into products, measure customers’ reactions and behaviors against built products, and then decide whether to persevere or pivot the idea.
Anna: Exactly, the value-driven approach that allows company to take, as quick as possible, new business opportunities instead of using a classical plan driven approach, and so this pool of methodologies allows the companies like Neomobile, to act as a real learning and innovative organization.