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How do we get more out of Agile?

The journey to an agile culture is often fun. There are twists and turns, melodrama and action, shock and awe, but it all ends well !!

After a series of Ask Me Anything webinars in 2021, we diagnosed about 80 members spread across 14 teams to understand where they stand when it comes to Agile Culture and mindset. While many of the teams had been trained in Agile and practicing Agile for more than a year, there were serious gaps in understanding the 12 Agile principles.

Not surprisingly the areas that needed most attention were Building Trust and Self Organizing Teams.

Another interesting observation we had was that Retrospectives were done without much intent to learn and only when negative feedback from client was shared.

If we translate our study into a numerical score, on a scale of 1 to 100, the teams scored in the low 60s on Self Organizing and in the mid-60s when it comes to Building Trust. Retrospectives were in the low 70s but had many variations from the average scores.

The biggest blocker to Trust was hierarchy consciousness among managers and teams. Hierarchy consciousness was seen in two perspectives

1) Power Distance : Vertically, Managers wanted to be “in-charge” and were hesitant to let go. Very surprisingly, horizontally as well, some roles were seen as higher in the pecking order than others. This manifested in meetings being very regimented and there was a clear order in which teams behaved.

2) Parent-Child relationship : most conversations within teams involved the manager “telling” the team what to do or the teams waiting for the manager to tell them what jobs they should execute. While people were respectful of each other, very few adult-adult conversations were visible.

Both these led to trust deficiency leading pockets of information being retained by few people and lack of open attitude within teams. As a result peer feedback was non-existent and motivation came only when managers acknowledged specific individuals and their effort.

Moving to a self-organised team had 3 major influences

1) Peer-Power : across all teams, peer communication and collaboration within the team was very high scoring well above 80 in some cases. However, the interactions were purely transactional and people-people connect was missing. The effort taken to understand colleagues as people was simply not prioritised. Most meetings were also done in “audio only” mode and some team members had not seen each other’s face in several months

2) Boundary Conditions : managers were not equipping their teams to take decisions and often intervene on how work should be executed and who should do what. Teams were also waiting for work allocation and not demonstrating personal ownership for the larger project goals. Teams scored less than 60 on this parameter. Not having clear boundary conditions for teams to take decisions is clearly a huge impediment to moving towards building self organizing teams

3) Autonomy : As a natural outcome of lack of Trust and weak boundary conditions, autonomy for the teams is very less often scoring around 40

Teams were not in a position to provide predictable estimates and sustaining pace of project execution was often challenged. In most cases, it required a heroic effort from select individuals to deliver committed outputs to clients. When such heroic efforts are not seen, projects often get escalated to senior management resulting in significant cost escalation to contain the high decibel situation.

The way retrospectives were conducted probably needed a retrospective for itself.

The process was followed but the spirit of a learning culture was completely missing. Feedback was often seen in a negative connotation and the meetings were perceived to be the most boring by the teams. There was no incentive for anyone to participate as the purpose and intent of the retros were not understood by anyone.

While this is the outcome of the diagnostic, how did the teams eventually fare? As they say, “culture is configuration of the mind” and therefore once the right configuration is done, you can easily surf over the tide.

After few weeks of hand holding and coaching on Agile Culture, the teams came up with their own solutions ranging from creating a “culture backlog” to preparing “social contracts for each team”. And so what? After 6 months:

  • the productivity of the team went up by over 20%

  • defects reported in production was almost nil

  • estimation predictability significantly improved

  • escalations to senior management came down to zero

Getting the Agile Culture Essentials right will help you get more out of Agile. No magic wand, only configuration of the mind !!
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