Surpassing 'Agile-Ish' ways of working
By Amy Van Zuydam
BlinkLane Consulting (currently part of Highberg) has recently been ranked as the number one consultancy in the Netherlands in the field of Agile by Consultancy.nl. This tip of the hat to BlinkLane’s track record of over 100 successful scaled Agile implementations in some of the world’s largest and most influential organizations is indicative of a much broader global trend. Since the early 2000s the Agile movement has been gradually building up steam. This is reflected in both its application - for example the extension of Agile practices into non-software organizations - as well as in its prevalence and adoption across the globe. We’ve witnessed a continued upward trajectory in the number of organizations that are either dipping their toes into Agile, or, in some instances, diving in head-first.
Results from recent studies, however, seem to suggest that most organizations are showing a limited tendency to venture past the ‘toe-dipping’ stage. While Agile practices are being adopted by as many as 90% of organizations worldwide, the level of agile maturity in these organizations remains low. According to Agile executives, practitioners and consultants worldwide, 84% of organizations implementing Agile practices are below what they deem to be a high level of competency . Often organizations find themselves stuck in an ‘Agile-ish’ state, where isolated pockets of agile fail to unlock true potential and often fizzle out due to a lack of support in combination with prevailing waterfall habits.
If this is sounding somewhat familiar, the question of how your organization could move beyond ’Agile-ish’ ways of working, towards adopting a company-wide mindset which is truly focused on delivering value to your customers (from leadership and strategy, to execution) is one which you might want to add to the agenda of your next brainstorming session.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Start with a vision
Make sure that you have a clear, comprehensive and compelling understanding of what it is you want to achieve and why it is important. Considering market-related issues and opportunities, what does the future look like and how is it different from today? Without a clearly defined rationale for change you will struggle to create the required urgency to inspire people to act.
Don’t view Agile as the end goal
Based on your vision, consider whether Agile practices and principles will indeed help you to achieve your goals, and don’t allow Agile to become the objective in itself. During the early stages of Agile transformations, we often hear comments along the lines of: “I understand the key problems that we’re facing, and I understand that Agile ways of working can help us address some of these concerns but are we ready for Agile?”. If you believe that Agile working is conducive towards achieving your goals, consider the level of Agile maturity in your organization. The agile journey should consist of short iterative steps that allow time for learning and adjustment. It’s important not to get too hung up on particular methods and tools. Evaluate, improve and gradually start new projects, keeping the focus on achieving your goals.
Identify opportunities for scaling
Once you have the hang of it, finding an opportunistic area to start scaling can be challenging. Identifying a value stream ‘carve-out’ of your organization that lends itself to Agile ways of working and allows you to deliver value quickly is important to demonstrate success. The size of the initiative is also important. On the one hand, taking on too much at first may introduce unnecessary strain on the system and managing the change becomes more difficult and complex. On the other hand, the opportunity should be big enough to stretch the organization, realize tangible benefits and demonstrate the potential for further application in other areas of the organization.
At some point, you have to jump
BlinkLane refers to this critical part of the Agile journey as "Jumping the chasm". It describes the moment in an Agile journey where a tipping point is reached; when the desire to convert into a truly Agile organization overrides the associated anxiety and propels organizations into action. It marks the point at which the status quo becomes unacceptable and the organization acknowledges that it cannot achieve continued growth within the existing process, structural and cultural constraints. It demonstrates a fundamental shift in the driving force behind Agile from being bottom-up, to becoming a top-down, leader-led, company-wide imperative.
It’s not easy, so make sure employees are properly supported
Disruption and discomfort are a given. It is inevitable that employees’ ‘Spidey senses’ will be tingling at the very mention of the word Agile, but if the vision for change can be clearly and effectively communicated with employees, and more importantly demonstrated by leaders and early adopters in the organization, you will have set up a solid foundation for change to take place. Having a change management strategy which ensures, amongst other things, that employees are kept informed, equipped with the necessary skills and information, and new ways of working are embedded in the culture of your organization, is critical for any successful transformation.
When it comes to Agile, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The unique, innate characteristics and circumstances of an organization are critical for understanding how Agile ways of working could help deliver value. That being said, haphazard experimentation with Agile is destined to fall short of its true potential for delivering customer value. By all means, test the waters first, but make sure that you have a clear, shared understanding of the bigger picture. Without this, the temptation to slip into ‘Agile-ish’ habits is far too great. That’s the thing about swimming (read: Agile). There’s a leap of faith followed by the terrifying realization just before you plunge into the depths of the unknown that there is no going back. But once you’re in and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath, you very seldomly regret it.
 Digital.ai (2020) 14th Annual state of agile report
 Kotter, J. P. (2012) Leading change