Characteristics of an Agile Organisation – are you being Agile and not just doing Agile?

Updated: Apr 13

by Sam Bowtell, CST

24/3/22


We all want to be Agile!


Agile is one of the most misused buzz words thrown about in business today. CEOs and Senior Executives talk about the need to be Agile and to have agility, but do they really know what that means and what it involves?


In this article, I will de-mystify the Agile buzzword and will outline what it means to be a truly Agile organisation.


Change… it’s been upon us and all around us for decades. The pace of technological change is something we are kind of getting used to, but in the 2 years we have lived with the COVID 19 pandemic, society has changed. The world around us is full of uncertainty and volatility, and organisations needs to be able to adapt and respond to change or run the risk of going first stale and then bust.


Agile is designed to help organisations respond and thrive in complex environments where change is acknowledged as the new normal. Adopting Agile will reduce many risks organisations are facing. It will reduce the risk of not getting new products to market in time, reduce the risk of not creating a product that clients value and will reduce the risk of not being able to adapt to changing market conditions and pressures. Ultimately, it will reduce the risk of an organisation going the way of Blockbuster, Kodak and Nokia. And if you’re reading this and wondering who those formerly world leading brands are… the point is made.


Most people think of Agile as a process or a method, when in facts it’s neither. Agile is an umbrella term for a collection of frameworks. In this context a framework provides a high-level view of what needs to be done and allows organisations to adapt exactly how they best work in their specific context. By using one of these frameworks such as Scrum, the organisation is ‘Doing Agile’, and have adopted a way of working that will help them improve WHAT they do and HOW they do it.



Being Agile, not just Doing Agile


To create business agility an organisation needs to not just be ‘Doing Agile’ but to ‘Be Agile’. It’s about thinking differently and adopting an Agile mindset, and not just blindly following a new work process or adopting a shiny new set of tools. By creating a culture that embeds the Agile values and principles outlined in the ‘Agile Manifesto’ an organisation will come to understand fully what it means to ‘Be Agile’. As well as living the 4 values and 12 principles of Agile, I have three over-arching characteristics that will help organisations to ‘be’ more Agile. These are feedback loops, maximising value and always improving.


1. Feedback loops and responding to change

Every plan you create in wrong! But we need a plan, a direction of where we are headed. In Agile, we accept that the initial plan will need to change, at its best the initial plan is only going to be partially correct. An Agile organisation acknowledges this and must let go of the comfort of having 1,000 detailed requirements gathered upfront and signed off by many committees, and to instead adopt the concept of a living and dynamic backlog of requirements that evolves as we learn more about the solution, environment, and what customers value.


The way we learn in Agile is by working in short cycles, or iterations. In Scrum these are called Sprints. These create short feedback loops of between 1 and 4 weeks, this is a timebox that provides focus for teams. The secret is to break the work down into smaller chunks, such that during the timebox something ‘complete’ is created that we can get feedback about from customers, both internal and external to the organisation.


As well as creating products and projects using short feedback loops, we also use short feedback loops to reduce the decision making and information sharing time lags. Communicating and knowledge sharing in large organisations is becoming more and more complex. Agile organisations adopt short and regular meetings to ensure that impediments to progress and important decisions don’t have to wait until the next monthly committee meeting. Teams have daily 15-minute huddles or Scrums, and executives attend similar short sessions 2 or 3 times a week to help with escalations and decisions. These feedback loops allow information and decisions to flow up and down an organisation rapidly, as outlined by Bosch in this case study.



Other examples of feedback loops are found in the creation of low-definition protypes. In banks, new features for ATMs have been created using cardboard versions of the product and tested for feedback on clients before building the real thing. When the idea of the Dropbox concept was born, they created a 2 min video that was a mock-up of how the technology would work. They hadn’t yet invented how to make it work, but when 70,000 people liked the video they knew it was worth the investment! Low-definition prototypes allow us to get valuable feedback from clients quickly and at low cost.


2. Maximising Value

Agile organisations focus on maximising value. It’s no longer just about people being busy, efficient, and productive, but creating genuine value for customers. What’s the point of creating ten new features for your website or app, if no-one is using them? What matters is the ‘Outcome’ for customers and not the quantity of ‘Output’ that your teams produce.


One of the ways to maximise value is to launch a simple version of the product to customers and to learn what they value. This is often referred to as a minimum viable product or MVP. The traditional way would be to create a detailed plan and engage customers in focus groups. The Agile way is to get the real product into the hands of real customers as soon as possible so understand what they like and what they don’t like.


Releasing value early and often is a key characteristic of Agile organisations, as we understand what customers value, we can do more of that, and less of things they didn’t value. The product evolves over time in an iterative way. Think of Netflix and how its model has evolved from mailing out DVDs to streaming and producing movies and TV series, and how Dyson have released over 5,000 versions of their vacuum cleaner to find the features that customers really value.


One of the other ways to maximise value is to introduce techniques that help teams focus on the most important work first. Agile teams relentlessly prioritise the most valuable work using the concept of the Backlog, and then relentlessly focus to deliver that work to customers as quickly as they can within the Sprint. Techniques like MoSCoW prioritisation, using visual management boards to manage the flow of work, and limiting work in progress (WIP) are some ways we can maximise value.



3. Always Improving

Dedicating time to reflect, learn and improve is something that an Agile organisation will practise. At the end of every Sprint cycle, teams reflect on how they worked together and decide on some actions that will help them improve an element of teamwork, processes, or technology. This creates a culture of continuous improvement and leads to faster delivery of value to customers and creates more engaged and happier teams! One of the unexpected benefits of working in Agile is that team members feel more autonomous through self-management, as individuals grow their mastery in how they deliver projects while feeling highly connected to the product or project’s purpose.


Another element of ‘always improving’ is that Agile organisations give people time to learn. Concepts like hackathons (teams aim to create a functioning product by the end of the event) and Google’s 20% time (spend 20% of working time exploring or working on projects that show no promise of paying immediate dividends but that might reveal big opportunities down the road) empower people to be more creative and innovative.


CommBank’s internal Agile conference (a self-organised one-day conference for the staff by the staff), DBS’s Gandalf Scholarships (giving people work time to self-educate on a topic or to attend training and then to teach it back to others) and simple things like Book Clubs or Lunch and Learn (brown bag) sessions are all ways to create spaces for people to learn.


Summary

In today’s complex and volatile world, organisations need to be able to adapt and respond to change more easily and quickly. Adopting Agile ways of working is a good start, but by truly ‘Being’ Agile, thinking differently as well as working differently. To be Agile, an organisation needs to create internal and external feedback loops, maximise value for customers and to always be looking to maximise opportunities to improvr and learn.


If you want to learn more on both being Agile and doing Agile, come along to one of our RedAgile Certified Scrum training courses.