Being Agile Without Fitting a Mould

A few weeks ago I started helping out at one of the most Agile tech companies I’ve ever seen.

I looked into their current state. On the surface, they use a mix of Scrum and Kanban ideas that wouldn’t pass muster by the standards of either approach. Some practices are done loosely, while others are absent.

And yet…

A thoroughly people-first, team-everywhere philosophy drives everything they do, with excellent servant leadership. Their methods implement — intentionally and explicitly — a host of Agile principles. For example:

  • Their four dev teams are truly able to work on any initiative on the roadmap (this is an Agile ideal that I’ve rarely seen implemented).
  • They pull work, rather than push it, and generally have low WIP even though numerical WIP limits are not observed.
  • They are removing significant amounts of technical debt. In some cases, that’s in the form of rewriting modules, but they’re producing clean code fully covered by excellent unit tests.
  • Collaboration is high on their radar. My favourite experience there: the VP Eng and VP Product pair up all the time — including in the many meetings with me.

The company is successful and growing fast, and the executives wanted to increase product development’s Agile maturity. Yet, most people I spoke with didn’t realize how Agile they actually were. One obvious reason: their implementation doesn’t look anything like popular templates. A less obvious reason: it appears loose, but it’s not; rather, it’s informal and light.

I’ve seen this at other high-calibre engineering cultures: people expect and appreciate professionalism, but push back on process that feels rigid (they include Scrum in this category). This company’s story exemplifies the path: servant leadership that implements an intentional mindset with minimal process.

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