Are you really Agile?

“Agile” is most definitely one of those words that is used liberally in sales brochures, delivery reports and, in fact, any form of communication that is attempting to show the reader that the team at hand is working “differently.”

Under the banner of Agile are a number of “processes” — although we have to be careful with that term, of course, as that could eradicate the core principles.

Scrum and Lean

Two such processes are Scrum and Lean. Scrum is a software development framework that focuses on the people, and Lean is intended to optimise and focus on the process. Fundamentally, Lean introduces two core concepts: eliminating waste and improving flow. Six Sigma follows the same two concepts; its main difference is how it identifies the root cause of waste.

The main difference (as I understand it) is that Lean’s focus on waste is determined by whether a customer is willing to pay for it, and therefore anything that does not add value is removed. (Six Sigma would assert that the waste comes from unnecessary variation). Of course in reality, anyone looking at something seriously would try and take both points into account.

Everyone (well, anyone who has looked into it) will know the Agile Manifesto, but what about the Lean principles? Given its focus on removing/reducing waste, then as you would expect, it is a cyclical process that constantly reviews and checks the value from the customer perspective and identifies all the right steps to get to that maximum value position.

Go with the flow

Lean talks about “flow,” which is how smooth the interaction should be within the system, no matter what system is being referred to, whether a production system or a knowledge worker — the latter being why Kanban boards are used in order for work not to get “stuck” at any particular stage.

So, lots of strong reference material, but: Are you Agile? Is the organisation you are working in Agile? Interestingly but not surprisingly, if you google “how Agile am I” the most common responses are from the big consulting organisations.

So I have found a few simpler anecdotes and some real points to clarify:

The anti-patterns of Agile (in other words, the “old world” ways of working):

  • The Send/Receive and Save As buttons initiate most team communication
  • Your white boards are mostly white
  • “Test-driven” still refers to your car
  • You don’t yet know what  MVP stands for
  • You spend more time trying to manage project dependencies than remove them
  • Someone still believes the Gantt Chart
  • Developers only develop, testers only test, and managers just manage
  • Simplicity is presumed to be simple
  • A Change (Decision) Control Board meets

Taking the more Agile-positive approach, here are some structured assessment points showing “old world” vs Agile:

  • Team comms — minimal vs open/trusting/face to face
  • User accessibility — limited offsite vs constant on site
  • Team location — highly distributed vs co-located
  • Team structure — department top down vs cross functional small teams
  • Delivery frequency — infrequent vs frequent
  • Measurement of progress — phases, tasks, documents vs features, business value, working software
  • Ability to change direction — low vs high
  • Testing — manual, post code vs integrated, automated, test-driven
  • Planning approach — up front and detailed, vs just enough adaptive, continuous
  • Process philosophy — static, audited vs analyse, adapt, improve

Looking at all the various checkpoints and assessments queries, it is very likely that you will start off reading the points and agreeing they sound right, but you know in reality you are not putting them into practice. So like anything in the “big problem” space, bite off a smaller manageable activity and test it out.

Neil Fagan is CTO of the UK Government Security and Intelligence Account in Global Infrastructure Services. He is an enterprise architecture expert, leading teams of architects who work on solutions from initial concept through delivery and support. This post originally appeared in a longer form on Neil’s blog@neilfagan



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