How can you improve your results with Agile methods?

Agile practices have spread worldwide and many companies or departments boast about embracing them. Although they do indeed adopt the methods, they fail to realize the full potential of them because that depends on much more than methods.

To explain what I mean with this, I’ve included the pyramid below. Many of you might have seen it before and what it says really is that for effective change one has to consider how the different levels therein influence each other.

The most obvious example is maybe when we build a high skilled team (ie. focus on capability) and fail to reach the expected results because the environment is not supportive or because of culture clash (ie. conflict in values or vision). Those who are “star performers” in one company might deliver disappointing results in another company for various reasons that are not directly reflected in capabilities.

The reality is that environment, behaviour and capabilities are process-related levels and they are influenced or even determined by the levels at the top.

Values provide for instance the motivation for developing capabilities, changing behaviour and they shape the environment. You can try and change methods but if the values of the company are not consistent with those methods, your results will be limited. Is like trying to put someone on a healthy diet when that thing it’s just not important enough for him or her. Or to put it differently, is one thing understanding what one should do, and another finding the internal motivation to do it effectively and developing the environment where that can happen.

Beliefs as well are important. What are the predominant beliefs among team members? Do they have beliefs such as “customer satisfaction is important”, “we are an adaptive company” or are they sucked up in a growth-destructive mindset where they are driven by beliefs such as “things never change around here”, “our opinion doesn’t matter” etc. For agile methods to work their magic you need a team with beliefs consistent with the Agile manifesto.

What happens in some companies that go for agile methods is that they fail to see beyond the capability level. SCRUM and other agile-inspired methods refer to capabilities but the results you get depend on where you stand in terms of values, beliefs, the role that your company plays (what is your scope?).

To keep it short I will go through some practical tips on how you can improve the results you get with SCRUM:

1. The team is empowered to work on the goal rather than being told how to do their job. When they hit a stumbling block the Scrum Master/Manager acts as a true leader, asking questions that help the team discover the way forward. They trust that the team can sort it and just facilitate that

2. There is ongoing and clear communication with the product owner. Again, if you change the method but you maintain poor communication practices don’t blame the method. The team needs to be trained to ask meaningful questions because sometimes a lot of info is taken for granted; furthermore, the relationship with the stakeholders is key so they need as much time with the product owner as they need.

3. Avoid having excessive specialisation, that is people who build skills in one area but not enough outside of that. It is better to encourage cross functional skillsets because this increases collaboration and creativity. It is what Tim Brown calls T shaped people. They have depth of skills in one area and some skills in others although not as much. So if you have developers who stubbornly refuse to test that’ a hint that you might not be getting the best results.

4. There has to be timely and honest feedback. People have to learn how to give and receive useful feedback. No personal attacks when giving feedback, no defensive behaviour when receiving feedback. There is an environment where the team feels safe about sharing concerns or providing unpleasant news about progress status.

5. The team needs to have time and creativity to solve occurring problems. First, the team members need to know how challenges can be reframed to boost innovative thinking. They need to know how to approach them so that to generate alternative solutions. So you also need creativity boosting games or approaches.

Secondly, instead of being asked to implement certain solutions they can work with the product owner to understand the problem and the constraints and then look for ways of creatively solving that.

Thirdly, you cannot expect much creativity if your team is overloaded or stretched. It's just not how our mind works best.

Not lastly, sprint goals have to be engaging. Some use metaphors inspired by sports, animal world, movies, songs or user stories whatever resonates with them. This motivates, energises and makes the process more fun. Hence we are working on environment.

So oftentimes for scrum and other agile methods to work their best, the company culture has to permit so. If it’s not a culture based on empowerment and openness it has to change. If it’s not a trust-based, creativity-driven, fun environment it has to change.

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