A Hiding To Nothing

A Hiding To Nothing

Most large companies are on a hiding to nothing if and when they decide they’re “going Agile” for software development. “Going Agile” can only ever deliver the outcomes these companies seek if the whole organisation is prepared to change some of its fundamental beliefs about how organisations should be run.

Sought Outcomes

What outcomes do larger compares typically seek from “going Agile” in their software development teams? Here’s a partial list:

  • A more coherent, disciplined approach to software development
  • Improved governance and oversight
  • Improved estimates
  • Better due-date performance (reliable on-time delivery)
  • More visibility into project roadmaps
  • Common standards
  • Better project organisation
  • People working “in sync”
  • Senior management confidence (in e.g. the teams’ ability to deliver)
  • Higher staff motivation and engagement

Why These Outcomes Are Unrealisable

What’s not to like in the outcomes these companies seek by “going Agile”? Although maybe not comprehensive – they lack, for example, outcomes like “joy in work”, “folks getting their needs met”, “improved flow” and “customer delight” – there’s a bunch of stuff here I could get behind.

Setting aside the observation that some of the above “outcomes” – such as “common standards” and “people working in sync” – are more solutions than needs, “going Agile”, per se, is not the answer for delivering these outcomes. At least, not within the Analytic mindset world view.

Why the Analytic Mindset is the Blocker

With an implicit Theory-X, local optima (manage the parts separately) perspective, any and all solutions attempting to deiver these outcomes through “going Agile” are doomed to undermine the very outcomes sought.

It’s likely to start well, with much interest and hope expressed by the staff. After all, who wouldn’t want more autonomy, more mastery, more purpose in their work? But as things progress, existing company policies, rules, attitudes, etc. will begin to assert themselves. To the detriment of staff morale, motivation and engagement. Pretty soon, staff will begin to question the sincerity of the management in their support for “going Agile”. Pretty soon, it will start to become apparent to anyone who’s paying attention that existing policies, rules, etc., have to change fundamentally to see the outcomes sought begin to happen.

And with declining staff engagement in “going Agile”, and reducing enthusiasm for understanding the principles necessary for making Agile successful, progress will slow to a crawl. At this point, middle-management, who have to carry the burden of making “going Agile” happen will also begin, quietly, to question the wisdom of the senior management direction. This will lead to their more often reverting to orthodox, “tried and tested” (and less personally burdensome) ways of working. And more often baulking at the effort needed to push through adoption of more Agile practices.

What To Do?

So, what’s a company to do? Most companies will not realise, or want to hear, that the Analytic mindset is fundamentally incompatible with successfully “going Agile”. So, another Agile adoption failure is in the making.

Personally, having helped various companies face up to this challenge, I’d say:

“It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll want – or even be able – to give up your existing world view. At least in the short term. So something’s got to give. And it’s probably better that you give up on “going Agile”. But DON’T give up on wanting things to be better. Park your Agile aspirations, and try another path, another solution. After all, it’s the OUTCOMES you seek that matter, not some specific – and cargo-culted – solution.”

So what might that alternative solution look like? What can an unrepentantly Analytic-minded organisation do to improve its software development outcomes?

My recommendation would be to focus on the interpersonal relationships within and between departments. Help developers understand and relate to customers (both internal and external) better. Help other folks within the organisation better understand and relate to developers.

Leveraging these improving relationships, encourage multi-party, cross-function dialogue about the outcomes sought, and what folks of every stripe can do, every day, to begin to shift the organisation’s rules, policies, structures and assumptions.

In a nutshell, be less autocratic, directive and strategic, and more democratic, collegiate and opportunistic.

And remember, I’m here to help.

– Bob

3 comments
  1. If a company decides to “go Agile” and it’s a decision from the top, then they really don’t understand what Agile is about. And you might think that they’re doing it for all the wrong reasons (and you’d probably be right). And you might also predict that in six months or a year, they’ll decide that Agile doesn’t work. And for them, it won’t have. But whose fault will that be?

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