What Agile Feels Like

After many conversations and observations over the past couple of years, it would seem a substantial number of organizations aren’t experiencing a meaningful improvement after a move to Agile. Sure, stories are being written, work is being done within sprints, and planning sessions are being facilitated. Perhaps a scaled framework has been introduced, full of promise and opportunity. The teams seem be doing everything right…but something still feels amiss. Beyond the mechanics, the hype, and the marketing of Agile, the dysfunctions of the past still linger below the surface.

When I encounter organizations frustrated with the lack of real transformational change I often respond by asking a simple question. “Well, what does it feel like?” Typical responses are “It doesn’t feel any different from before.” or all too frequent, “It feels worse than before, we’re thinking of going back.”

What should an Agile organization “feel” like? Here is a list of just a few of the things I look for in an organization with agility embedded in their DNA:

Illumination. Agile will often reveal long-standing dysfunctions in your organization. There is a feeling of openness and honesty about the bad habits accumulated over time. The opportunity to continuously reflect, adjust, and evolve is embraced. By allowing all the “dark corners” of the organization to be revealed, there may a feeling of being unsettled or uncomfortable as well. This is a good thing. As a colleague of mine always says, “Become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Decisive. There is a feeling that decisions are made quickly and without formal “toll-gates” or unnecessary approvals. Bureaucracy dissolves. Command-and-control leadership fades away. It should feel as if the frontline project or product teams are making real-time decisions with the power of the enterprise behind them.

Connective. Communication is flowing through the organization. Phase gates and approvals are replaced with opportunities to design and build things together. When an Agile team states, “We need to check with the business”, I’m pretty sure things are not feeling very agile. There is no such thing as “the business” and “technology”…we are all the business and we are all technology these days.

Self-healing. There is a tangible sense that teams and departments are recognizing their own pain points and is fixing them in real-time. No need to wait for a leader to tell us to change or for an outside coach to come in and tell us what is broken. The community of practitioners are shaping their own workplace while still aligned to the vision of the enterprise.

Resilient. Reorganizations and “change events” become a thing of the past as change is built into the DNA of the organization. This article details a few of the ways emergent organizations are building resiliency into their systems. This resiliency allows us to, as Eric Ries puts it, “actively pursue the unknown.”

Productive. There is a feeling that we are delivering more features more quickly. This often means removing items from our long list of never completed projects and focusing on a few key products or features. This often means having cross-functional teams with everything in place to deliver fully functional product to our customers. No more allocating people across multiple teams or projects.

Festive. While I wouldn’t expect every day to feel like Mardi Gras, a celebratory feel should begin to ripple through the organization. When a group of people are aligned to a common purpose and begin to delight their customers with amazing products and features, you can’t help but throw a few parties.

For many organizations, obtaining this “feeling” will take significant work. Large companies or older organizations will need extra care to release their organizational scar tissue. Are you up for it?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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