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Agile: the iceberg versus the tree

More and more organisations are changing their method of working in order to apply an Agile methodology. Yet success can not be taken for granted. Companies regularly become disillusioned and slip back into their old way of working. Unnecessary and a shame, according to Jos de Bel and Arnold Houwing of TMC.

Companies often struggle with the management of software development projects. When you walk past a development department, you do not immediately see how the software is doing, what the quality of the code is and in what phase the development is. That is why it is difficult to see whether a release is on time and what the quality will be. An Agile method such as Scrum or Kanban can provide more insight. These techniques make the process more visual and more effective and ensure a greater interaction with the client.

But still, rolling out Agile does not always work. In order to be successful the whole organisation has to back the introduction of Agile. This often means a cultural change is needed. If that change is not forthcoming, the organisation gains no advantage from the introduction of Agile practices. Organisations will then lapse into their old pattern and that’s a missed opportunity.

Continuous support

At TMC we call this the Agile iceberg. All the familiar Agile practices that are directly visible, such as daily stand-ups, sprints, retrospectives, test-driven development and pair programming, are above the water; they are visible and relatively easy to introduce in a team. After a while, an organisation will often discover that working according to an Agile method is not as easy as it seems. Because the base is under water, much less visible and harder to roll out. But that’s where the foundation of Agile can be found, the Agile principles and values.

Organisations call themselves Agile without anyone ever having read the Agile manifesto. This describes the first part of the iceberg under water: the principles. Managers, stakeholders and team members should be familiar with the principles in the Agile manifesto and follow them to be successful with Agile.

For instance, the first rule in the Agile manifesto reads: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. A company wanting to work with an Agile methodology will therefore have to promote physical human interaction. This can be done by putting teams together in one space or outfitting an informal meeting room with whiteboards on which people can draw and write during a meeting.

How this can best be done, can not be defined univocally. Among other things it depends on the organisation and the building in which the organisation is housed. Moreover, every team is different and if something works for one team that does not mean it will work for others. Agile requires continuous thought about the specific situation in order to enable teams to perform to the best of their abilities.

The basis of the Agile principles are the Agile values. These form the true foundation of a successful rollout. Examples are: trust, recognition, human interaction, respect, feedback, openness and teamwork. These values must be supported within an organisation and are difficult to introduce. Doing this well often requires a cultural shift within the organisation.

Take trust for example. To ensure that a team truly becomes self-organising, it is not sufficient to say that a team is self-organising. The team must be given room to organise itself and people within and outside the team must dare to leave decisions up to the team and have the confidence that the team can manage this responsibility. Management and stakeholders must give the team a free rein and support the team in the decisions it makes. A self-organising team can only exist within an organisation in which it enjoys continuous confidence and where the team it has enough information to enable it to take well-founded decisions.

Agile values can not be introduced from one moment to the next. An organisation has to learn to deal with them and to support them continuously. As soon as an understanding is gained, it often becomes much clearer why an Agile methodology brings improvements. The values, principles and applications of Agile are all connected and support one another. If an organisation only introduces the applications without knowing the underlying principles and values, it will go the same way as a real iceberg: slowly everything will melt away and the company will slip back into its old pattern.

Reap the fruits

Within TMC we therefore employ a model based on a tree. That tree represents continual growth and development. At the root lie the Agile values. The introduction of Agile begins with a small seed, often planted by a team or an individual and first has to take root. The people wishing to introduce Agile must feel supported and enjoy sufficient confidence to experiment. After that a shoot with a small stem will develop, the Agile principles, and a couple of leaves, the Agile applications.

The introduction of Agile is a delicate process. Roots, stem, branches and leaves must be given the time and space to grow and must remain in proportion to each other. Sometimes we have to give water and sometimes we have to prune. Do not expect Agile to immediately bring the organisation forward. Sometimes you will book quick results, but often that is because a basis for Agile is already present in the organisation. The introduction of Agile is almost always an untidy and awkward process.

Just as is the case with a tree, Agile will continue to grow and develop in the organisation. In addition it’s important to regard the approach not as a trick of the development team but as a method of working of the organisation. Team, stakeholders, management and clients will start to communicate and co-operate in a different way. That can sometimes be difficult and awkward, but remember a small seed does not grow into a beautiful big oak overnight either.

It is important to give development teams and the organisation time to get used to Agile and to maintain a good balance between the daily applications and the underlying principles and values. If too much emphasis is placed on just the Agile applications and the underlying principles and values are pushed to the background, it is advisable to first regain the balance before developing a new Agile initiative. This is an important task for the scrum master or Agile coach. As soon as an organisation gains more experience with Agile, it will find the balance more easily.

The interest of the client is always the most important thing. Agile is never a goal in itself. The goal is always to make the best possible product. With Agile this is done by continuously listening to the wishes of the client. So implement as many feedback loops as possible. By doing this we can react quickly to changes and the product will continue to meet the wishes and demands of customers and users.

Changing the development process almost always requires a new mindset and a cultural shift. The development teams will become more involved as the team members are given more responsibilities regarding the process and their daily activities. Choices will be made at a different moment and at another level in the organisation. Every change calls up resistance, including the switch to Agile. A good basis such as the model of the Agile tree will offer something to hold on to and will help maintain the balance during these changes.

The word ‘Agile’ already says it all: it is a flexible way of working. As long as the organisation has the right soil to allow the Agile seed to sprout and we ensure that the small plant can continually develop, we will soon be able to reap the fruits from the Agile tree.

Authors: Jos de Bel and Arnold Houwing

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