January 24, 2019
Why agile is a philosophy, not a compliance regime

Agile 2018 host Howard Sublett caught up with Dom Price, conference keynote speaker and head of R&D and Work Futurist at Atlassian, during Agile 2018. Dom’s career had reached far and wide throughout Europe, US, and Asia PAC, with responsibilities spanning five Global R&D centers. Below is an excerpt from their discussion on Agile as a means to real value.

Howard: Interesting that [we’re] at an agile conference, because you said the future of work and healthy teams might not be agile.

Dom: Yeah. I think we've become over-indexed on the solution. Agile is one of many solutions. It's one of many tools or techniques we can deploy, but in over-indexing on it, we're using it for every single problem. And I think we need to reframe the problem. The problem is healthy teams. How can you get cognitively diverse teams working together—teams with different cultures, different backgrounds, different subject matter expertise—it's not easy, right? I think if we understand that problem, of how do we make teams healthy, agile might be the solution for some of them.

Our goal is to make those teams healthy and effective, so they can do the best work of their life—not to make them agile—and I see too many organizations celebrating agile, and they've not achieved any of the outcomes they intended.

Howard: So, celebrating agile. A lot of times people talk about agile and what they're really talking about is scrum in in software teams. Agile is a term that a lot of people use and misuse.

Dom: Yes! It's a way of working, and way too many corporate organizations are using it as a compliance regime with a checklist. They walk around and say we do stand-ups, we do retros, we do X, we do Y, therefore we’re Agile tech. But did you achieve any of the outcomes? Are you faster to market? Are you more innovative? Are your teams more engaged? Are you experimenting more? And they say, "We don't care about any of that. We're agile!" You’ve not only subtly missed the point, you have completely missed the point and gone the other direction!

Right now, it's red-hot with everyone who's super excited by transformation programs, and every time I hear the t-word, a little bit of me dies because I hear these organizations say, "We are going to transform to agility, and we have a 24-month plan to transform"—but how have you not missed the irony in the fact that agility is about embracing the uncertainty that's in front of you, not trying to plan through it!

Howard: No one has a 24-month plan to agility or thorough transformation, do they?

Dom: Yes. We have information, we can predict when we can out-plan our opposition. For 40, 50 years, that kept a business in business. That world is not the one we're in right now. And there are a lot of people who haven't yet understood the nuance of the fact that we are in terms of volatility and uncertainty. So, the best thing you can do is to start and then adapt—but those same people are sitting in a room in a building trying to build an 18-month plan, and what they're not doing is walking out of that building and understanding what their customer wants.

Howard: I don't know that we're looking for the single solution. I think we're looking for the thing that will help us move at least one increment. Now, in some approaches, people are looking for an entire package. So, if agile isn't the solution or isn't the only solution, else should they be looking at?

Dom: What I showed during the keynote is our approach. Which is, if you understand the mirror you shine in front of teams, how can you make them self-aware to understand? What makes a team? We talked about project teams, leadership teams, and service teams as team personas. There are billions of types, but we land on those three as generic types: project teams with a start, middle, and end. They're like product teams, they share a common goal together, they're cross-functional. Leadership teams are the funny one. They are designed to coach, mentor, inspire, and our great leadership teams are thinking time horizon 2 and 3 and nothing about today. They're not looking for that first increment. They're looking for increments in 6 or 12 months, right? And then service teams, which we've seen more of, look like projects and products—but they're different because instead of a backlog, they have a queue and that queue needs to be triaged and managed, and they need to think about prevention, as well as cure. Just getting to understand that rhythm and cadence and what makes those teams awesome—how do you understand what a healthy team looks like? Give them a mirror to assess themselves.

Once they've done that, how do you give them exercises, we call them plays, to go and build that muscle? It’s not physical muscle, it’s mental muscle. For example, one of our areas of a healthy team is a shared understanding: You all know why you're doing it and what you're doing, and you trust each other. When we rated our first 100 teams, over half of them said we know what we're doing, and we forgot why.

Howard: Yeah, they miss the why.

Dom: They had the why originally, but over time the why disappears and they start doing the what. Our teams stop course-correcting, they stop listening, and they're not agile anymore. They follow all the rituals, but they've lost the spirit, the heart of agility, because they're not listening. They're not looking outside the building. There’s no one from compliance who comes and prods you or shoves a thermometer inside you. You own your team health and you own your team improvement.

Howard: A lot of what you're talking about really is still inherently part of agile principles and values, the values of transparency. How is that different than agile? What you just described seemed right at the core of what agile should be …

Dom: So that's the tide we're swimming against. The tide for a lot of corporates is toward frameworks as the singular answer. My argument is there are many answers. I can give you an 80 percent baked answer, but in doing that I'm assuming you're going to go and do the other 20 percent and adapt it to your environment. I think we've got a lot of lazy corporates around the world that want to buy the 100 percent answer—and they'll spend millions.

Listen to the full podcast, “Why Agile is a Philosophy, Not a Compliance Regime,” and subscribe to Agile Amped for insights on DevOps, Agile, business agility, and more!

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