Many large IT organizations are seriously struggling to get agile delivery “right.” This has significant implications for their ability to serve the needs of their business partners.
While there are a lot of prescriptions for how to get agile to work effectively in a large organization, we find that these five things are fundamental to get right regardless of anything else you plan to do (e.g implement SAFe or another large scaling framework for Agile, deploy Agile Coaches, etc...).
1. Hire the Right People
Innovation is a team sport. And like any team sport, the first priority is to put people on the team who will give you the best chance for success.
At 1904labs, we look for the following characteristics when adding people to our team (and in this specific order):
- Attitude: Does this person have the right attitude to contribute successfully? Is their ego in check? Do they like working with other people? Do they understand how important it is to be a good teammate?
- Aptitude: Is this person inherently smart? Are they intensely curious? Do they enjoy learning new things?
- Experience: Do they know enough in the area they are being hired to be able to contribute to their initial projects?
Many companies invert this list and seek experience and skills first. We believe this is a serious mistake. Once this mistake is made, achieving successful agile delivery is virtually impossible.
2. Build and Operate Effective Teams
Once you have the right people on board, the next step is to form teams that are set up to be successful.
Clearly you need to have the right mix of technical skills on the team. For example: depending on the project being undertaken, this could be software engineers, data engineers, data scientists.
You should also put human-centered designers on every agile team and keep them there for the duration of the project. However, many companies make human-centered designers available early in the process. But these team members are often removed once initial requirements are understood and initial designs have been developed. This is a big mistake.
If you have multiple human-centered designers early in the discovery process, you can likely reduce their numbers once delivery starts. But do not remove all of them.
Finally you need to put a servant leader on the team to help the team operate. We call this role an Agile Engineering Lead or AEL at 1904labs. They are responsible for providing servant leadership for each team member, acting as the scrum master for the team and being a single point of contact for our clients (although all members of our teams interact with our clients all the time as they are performing work).
In addition to staffing a team appropriately, the team needs a few principles to operate effectively. The number one principle for teams at 1904labs is there are no leads on the team. Every member of the team is considered equal when it comes to solving client problems and implementing solutions. We believe this is a key to our team’s success.
By involving an AEL, technologists, and HCD skillsets throughout the project, we are able to consistently ensure a holistic picture of the solution rather than one that is seen through a single perspective. These perspectives are equally balanced to ensure usability (HCD), feasibility (technologists), and viability (business/product) in the ultimate solution.
3. Provide Teams an Easy to Understand Methodology that Works
Just like with successful sports teams, having good people and an effective team structure is clearly necessary, but it's not sufficient to ensure their success.
Agile delivery teams, just like sports teams, need a playbook to help them be successful. At 1904labs that playbook is our Human-Centered Design Agile - or HCDAgile for short - methodology. At a high level, our HCDAgile methods outline how a team should go about discovering what the real problems are that need to be solved. Then they determine how to solve them in a way that works for the users involved.
Our slogan is “Build the Right Thing the Right Way.” Our HCDAgile methods are not overly complicated and leave plenty of room for teams to innovate and implement solutions creatively. HCDAgile is simply designed to keep the team focused on providing solutions for the humans at the center of our efforts.
4. Focus Teams on Achieving Performing Status and Maintaining It
Once the team is assembled and equipped with our HCDAgile methods, our Agile Engineering Lead (AEL) guides them as a Servant Leader through the four steps of team formation - Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing - as quickly as possible. Our goal is to get each of our new teams to Performing state within 2 to 4 sprints or 1 to 2 months.
Once the Performing state is achieved, the AEL role shifts from more scrum master to coach. This provide the team with the support they need to remain at a Performing state. This includes ensuring each team member has what they need to get their work done successfully. It also ensures the team is executing all the Agile ceremonies effectively and performing monthly reviews of team health and velocity with the client. The team can make continuous adjustments as needed to ensure they remain at a Performing level.
5. Deliver Innovative and Predictable Output
Once the agile team has achieved a Performing state, their output each sprint is now in a predictable range. This allows the team to work with the Product Owner and other stakeholders to determine how to use their output to achieve the desired product roadmap.
We have developed a simple to use “Deterministic Agile” framework. The team and Product Owner can use this to determine when needed features can be delivered based on the team’s steady-state velocity. This solves one of the big problems that Agile has created in some organizations. It’s not clear when features will be delivered, and the product owner can't make commitments to the business.
It’s critically important that IT organizations succeed in using agile in order to deliver needed improvements in business capability. We believe that adopting these five keys to consistent agile delivery will put every IT organization on the road to success. Are you in your agile adoption journey and considering outside guidance? We would welcome the chance to help if these ideas resonate with you.