How to Tell Whether Your Team Is Agile

My company assessed three teams for a client. One of the three is actually one of the most Agile teams we’ve observed in an enterprise environment, and their customers are really happy with the value 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 Scrum Master? Daily standups? Short sprints? Demo and retrospective at the end of each?
  • Do they have high velocity? Is the team 9 people or less?
  • Are they using Jira? story points? automated tests?

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 happy.

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 mindset. Approached with the traditional Waterfall mindset, 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 succeed:

  1. People before process
  2. Adaptation
  3. Early and frequent value delivery
  4. 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:

  1. Do they have a people-first culture?
  2. How often do they adapt their product, process, and teamwork to change — economically and without drama?
  3. How frequently do they deliver meaningful results?
  4. 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, mindset, 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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