A client reached out to my company, asking us to assess
three teams. The consultant who did the assessment sent
me an interesting note:
“One of the three teams is actually one of the most Agile
teams I’ve observed in an enterprise environment (and
their customers are really happy with the value being
delivered). Yet, they’re not perceived as such by IT
management because they don’t fit a ‘cargo cult’
understanding based on process.”
Many managers put their teams through some change process
toward Agile. After some time, they want to know: “Is my
team Agile?” Or, in other words, “Did we get it right?”
“Have we arrived?”
Most places I’ve been, those managers (and their
superiors) attempt to answer this question by applying
simple tests and heuristics:
- Does each team have a product owner and a ScrumMaster?
Daily standups? Short sprints? Demo and retrospective at
the end of each? Story point estimation? Is the team 9
people or less?
- Do they have high velocity?
- Are they using [name of some Agile software tool]?
Planning Poker? Burndown charts? Less documentation?
In my experience, the answers can all be “yes” for a
given team, and still none of the Agile benefits will accrue.
The customer will not be particularly delighted, real
productivity will not be great, and the team won’t be too
The trouble with these tests and heuristics is that they
only check compliance with processes, practices, and
tools associated with Agile. Those elements were designed
from the Agile values, principles, and beliefs; however,
they are meaningless when applied as a prescription or
without understanding of the Agile mind-set. Approached
with the traditional Waterfall mind-set, the daily standup becomes a
daily status meeting, the backlog becomes a project plan,
sprint planning is used to “work the plan,” and so on.
Such tests and heuristics often arise from a mistaken
belief that Agile is a process with a set of practices
supported by tools. But if you consider Agile’s value
system, you’ll find there nothing of the sort. What you’ll find is that Agile practitioners care about four things
more than anything else, believing that’s how they’d
- People before process
- Early and frequent value delivery
- Customer collaboration
From the value-system perspective, a more useful way to
determine a team’s Agility is to see how well they live
up to these values:
- Do they have a people-first culture?
- How often do they adapt their product, process, and teamwork to change — economically and without drama?
- How frequently do they deliver meaningful results?
- How well do “the doers” collaborate with “the askers”
to make mutually beneficial decisions?
These questions are more meaningful and relevant than
“Are they Agile?” First, they change this yes-or-no
question to a qualitative one, “How Agile are they?”
Second, they draw attention away from specific mechanics
to the matter of approach, mind-set, or philosophy —
what Agile is really about. And by doing that, they apply
across teams whose implementations might differ
substantially from common expectations.
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