Agile Is a System Thing

“Agile doesn’t work” pitfall #3: The Agile approach is designed for the entire system of value delivery, but companies apply it mostly in the build part.

In the article Don’t Write Agile off Just Yet I mentioned three pitfalls that make it seem like Agile doesn’t work. This article takes a closer look at the third pitfall.

For a product/solution to be successful, many people (including managers!) have to ideate, experiment, choose, develop, fix, etc. — with a hefty dose of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination.

That group of people is a distinct subset of the company, and it’s usually bigger than what’s usually structured as “the Agile team(s).” Think of the credit roll at the end of a movie: although it might list the producer, director, actors, and writers first, there are many more people whose choices matter to the end result.

That group is not only bigger; it is a system, not a bunch of independent functions working sequentially (which the term “value stream” might connote!) These folks are interconnected, and choices in one part affect behaviours in another part.

For this reason, changing the working approach for a subset may not optimize the whole. For example:

  • A team of dev & QA may work in sprints and even be “high-performing,” but if other parts of the system (product manager, Business partner, VP) create a massive backlog and promise it all, adaptation will be low.
  • The product manager and developers might evolve the product in the highest value-providing sequence, but if “adjacent” specialists (such as Marketing, Legal, Support) can’t or won’t deal with frequent delivery of increments, the customers won’t get all of that value.
  • Engineering might be serious about technical agility: they write all the tests, keep the code clean, and slash tech debt. But if they’re not strategic about it, the time spent on low-value areas will eat into the time available for high-value ones.

The product/solution is only as good as the system that makes it. To achieve meaningful agility, apply it across the system, from idea to delivery.


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