1 juli 2018

Agile at scale — why it is so hot right now

Patric Palm

Patric Palm, Favro CEO and co-founder

Agile is not just for techies anymore. The use of agile workflow management has gone from software development teams to entire organizations in a few years as the speed of market adaptability became the new business currency. Here is why this is happening right now and how your organization can make huge progress by working in an agile way.

Agile management and collaboration are not new. It was pioneered in the 90’s and became the go-to way of organizing software development. Scaling agile management to ever-larger software development organizations are not new either. However, now the great change is that agile is hitting the mainstream industries and the core of any enterprise, throughout all kinds of teams and leadership levels. This topic has been covered in Harvard Business Review and the effects that this agile surge has had on HR and recruitment, as well as in books like The Age of Agile.

As long-time thought leaders in the agile community, we early saw this wave building up. It spread from software development to IT operations with DevOps and continued into the startup scene. The ideas and models of Lean Startup in the early 2000s took agile one step closer to the mainstream market, I remember clearly the tech festival SXSW in Austin, Texas, 2016 when agile marketing was one of the hottest topics around.

But why is all this happening right now? I am convinced that it comes back to the need for big companies and organizations to reinvent their ability to be adaptable to change. Most successful large companies today are built on corporate efficiency. Business processes have been fine-tuned and scaled as the business has grown. They are process-centric. But to become successful in the market right now, companies need to be less like drag-racing champions — fine-tuning for the fastest speed straight ahead — but rather master Formula One skills, such as taking different kinds of curves as fast and efficient as possible. The industrialism made humans cogs in a machine — but right now we live in a post-industrial world where human abilities like creativity and innovation will be rewarded. It is time to go back to our natural way of working — and have more fun.

Adaptability must be the core of every part of the organization — including the executive layer. Marketing used to be big bang campaigns with solo players, such as the character Don Draper in Mad Men, calling the shots. Today, it is a digital and data-driven business where a continuous relationship is being curated with a community of customers. Excellence in marketing is much more like running a software team than like the old days of Madison Avenue and a broader skill set is needed.

What does this change look like in big organizations and how will we see this change? As I see it, the core thing to get right for hyper adaptability is organizing people. The adaptable unit of humans is a small team with around seven people with the right diversity of skills needed to solve the problems at hand. This way of organizing small teams has many names. In one agile approach — Scrum — it is called scrum teams. Spotify calls them squads, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos named them two-pizza-teams.

Organizing autonomous teams means adopting a different strategy in recruiting for teams and a change in the leadership of the entire organization. Once we have autonomous teams put together there is no point if this armada of autonomous units is not going in the same direction. It requires a more mission-based leadership and setting of objectives. Instead of command and control, the focus should be on aligning the teams by agreeing on the right goals for the entire organization.

On a micro-level, it is not about managing individuals anymore but coaching a team. Therefore, we need to find more team-based ways of measuring performance. A good example of an organization doing it right — instead of managing tasks of a team — is managing towards the outcome. This is referred to as outcome-driven development in software development. It is, simply put, up to the team to work out how to reach the objectives.

Who does this appeal and apply to? Most of the new talent joining companies and organizations are millennials — this is a demographic fact. The agile culture seems to appeal to the values of the millennials better than traditional ways of working. They like autonomy and accountability. The change is vertical as well. If the teams are highly adaptable but the executive teams are not — it will be a major problem for the entire organisation. Today, executive teams are forced to adapt quickly to changes in the market, making leaders more into facilitators, visionaries and communicators and coaches. The days of being an authority based on highly skilled expertise are over. We are seeing the death of the micro-manager and the rise of the highly communicative leader.

So, what can you do to change how teams and management are organized?

1. Focus on team composition. Like teams, management should be organized into small autonomous teams too — optimized to solve problems together, rather than working solo. This can be a tough mindset change for many managers who are not used to work in teams but rather work solo using sharp elbows to achieve success. In a super adaptable world group performance matters — not individual achievements. Leaders need to handle two different roles here — the role of being a part of a team with manager peers, and the role of having autonomous teams reporting to them.

2. Make the mission super clear. There can’t be any uncertainty about what the teams or management groups need to achieve to be successful. Actions towards the mission must be structured with agile leadership techniques to be streamlined. This means that goals and initiatives are being organized in a backlog, a list, where the agile principle of prioritizing what is most important, entails the highest risk and is most valuable, are worked on first and all the rest cut out. (Yes, there are agile strategies for the long-term things as well.)

3. Visualize your flow. Flow management techniques will limit your work in progress and create a focus on speed and throughput. Visualization of the workflow will also make it transparent and make co-workers aware of what is going on in the organization without spending time on creating advanced reports. Everybody from interns to the CEO will have instant insights into progress and impediments.

Now, we have talked about strategy and operations — but what is the gut-feeling for this big change? In my experience, agile creates a feeling of real autonomy, as well as accountability. You can’t blame the boss anymore! The pressure from your boss will be less, the pressure from your peers will be higher. The feeling of rowing together on a stormy sea in a small boat will be obvious and everybody needs to contribute according to their best ability. Continuous transparency also means that everybody has reliable and up to date information about what is going on — also when things go wrong.

Finally, agile organizations need to think about processes and tools. This used to be a highly centralized task but in an agile world, it must be owned by the teams themselves. The centre of collaboration today is online rather than in an office space — synchronous communication like email is not working so well where asynchronous tools like Slack or MS360 Teams imitates the way we talk with each other in real life. Many teams use physical boards or applications designed for small teams with success. However, Favro has the advantage of letting teams work the way they want, but at the same time connecting all teams horizontally and vertically throughout the organization. In this way, work does not get isolated and everyone gets an overview of what is going on.

This big shift in the modern workplace is what inspired us to create Favro. We started with a blank sheet, applied our long experience of agile, and were the first to create an organization-wide workflow application that makes work more meaningful and fun.