Agile is not an excuse to spin out of control

Agile…everyone is talking about it…everyone thinks they are doing it. When I speak with senior stakeholders, relatively new to Agile, the first thing that comes to their mind is that Agile will help them become faster, hence succesful.

Agile seems to be all about speed!

In fact, in the 13th Annual State of Agile Report (2019), the biggest survey of its kind, 74% of the respondents claimed that the main reason for adopting Agile was because “it accelerates software delivery”. Speed again seems to be of outmost importance.

Even when discussing with my students when they start studying Agile, the first thing they think is that Agile is all about making the teams go faster and deliver really fast.

Thinking Agile from an Industrial Perspective

It is puzzling but it seems that we are still influenced by the industrial way of thinking. Process, productivity, speed, output, efficiency, savings.

Agile seems to be the silver bullet to solve all of our productivity issues, the turbo boost that will make the engine run faster. No wonder that so many businesses turn prematurely to Agile at Scale. The more of it the better!

However, moving fast doesn’t mean that we are moving to the right direction. Failing fast doesn’t mean that we are correcting our course or make up for our lack of vision and direction.

We tend to confuse:
– Direction of travel (decision making) with speed
– Quality (value to clients) with quantity (how fast)
– Running sprints with hurrying up
– Failing fast with breaking stuff
– Agile at scale with strategy

What is even more fascinating is that none of the 12 agile principles really talks about speed.

“Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.”

12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto

The real focus is on getting frequent feedback through increments of working software rather than relying on theoretical designs, in order to ensure we are on the right direction. Frequently delivered software is not necessarily what the customer wants and may be of very little value. But the real focus should be on value.

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto

This principle talks about the team having a constant sustainable place rather than speeding up.

Going slower to go faster

Similarly with the concept of time, what really matters is reducing the entropy rather than increasing it. It is not about constant acceleration until we all spin out of control.

If we take an approach like Kanban, we will see that one of the key properties of Kanban is “Limiting Work In Progress”. Limiting WIP helps optimise the workflow and achieve much better results by avoiding bottlenecks. In fact, the team can have better flow when they are not fully utilised rather when they are overworked.

This seems to be counterintuitive, as we are used to be thinking with cause and effect. But it seems that the slower the team goes, the faster it goes and there is more flow with fewer interruptions.

Most businesses are large complex adaptive systems with thousands of balancing and reinforcing feedback loops, and with significant time lags between decisions and outcomes. Being fast and making fast decisions may not be the most appropriate strategy.

As Donella Meadows says in her seminal book “Thinking in Systems” in order to be effective we need to learn how to dance with the system, watch how it behaves and get its beat. It is about observing and understanding the rhythm of the system, and finding our flow, rather than spinning uncontrollably.

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