Sitting at lunch during Agile 2023, I felt deja vu. I have attended many Agile conferences. My first was in Chicago in 2009. I have only missed two during those fourteen years. I have witnessed the growth of Scrum, the rise of DevOps, the impact of XP, the expansion of SAFe, and the growing connection to professional coaching. I have seen tool vendors come and go. But I always felt that progress was being made. The conference always had a level of positive energy that, to me, felt like progress. At Agile 2023, I did not feel that. It was still a great conference, but It felt like we were stuck.
As I sat at my table eating, I was talking to a group of people about adoption within their large organization. Scrum was being used, and they had seen much success, but they found its growth hard. The challenges they discussed could be traced to classic business change management issues rather than anything unique to agility. Their issues were less about Scrum and more about change in general.
Alignment – The teams were not aligned with their customers and business outcomes. Because of scale and legacy, the teams were aligned to a combination of skills, applications, and project boundaries. This was frustrating to the people I was talking to because it was hard to focus on innovation and value, and instead, they felt forced to concentrate on work and dependency management.
Support – Do not get me wrong. Executives were sponsoring the use of Scrum and had even attended some of the classes, but they thought that the change was not for them but for others. Their involvement was sponsorship, and the ideas did not apply to them or how they approached the objectives. This meant there was a disconnect between how strategy translated into work. The leaders were not using agile to drive strategy into execution, ultimately creating a disconnect between them, how they worked, and the outcomes they achieved.
Incentives – We talked about visible incentives, such as promotion and bonuses, and invisible incentives, such as status and position. It continues to be crucial for your career to be the go-to person and critical at every meeting. And without significant changes to HR practices and what people think is essential, it is hard to see how this will change.
Interest – The people around the table were very interested and passionate about the change, but they were increasingly finding other people involved less interested, and that interest waned over time. Building and maintaining energy requires a plan; making the change is everyone’s responsibility. It becomes increasingly hard to drive that change over time when it is left to a small group of people with agile in their title.
Investment – Their organization was very willing to spend money and, of course, had sponsored these people to attend this conference. However, investing in Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters was much easier than investing time for the whole team and reducing how much ‘stuff’ they would deliver in the short term. What was even worse was it was not even a matter of less work being produced but more the attendance of meetings and effort invested in their existing processes and events.
Because the above things are complex and require executive support, changing them is much more complicated than getting executives more involved. It is more significant that the team, product, or even organization is affected by the environment everything lives within. And that environment is affected by education, media, supply chains, vendors, products we use, and even how we perceive our job regarding social value. For example, our education system has reinforced the importance of individual excellence. The media supports those ideas and plays hero narratives. It even affects our friends and family who ask questions like ‘Why has Dave not become a manager yet?’ or ‘Dave is too nice to be successful.’ The industrial paradigm is everywhere!
So it should not come as a surprise that we are stuck.
The question is, can we get unstuck?
We have LOTS of great approaches, fantastic work on enterprise agility, and much evidence that Scrum and the ideas it promotes work. The concepts of Design Thinking, Lean Startup, OKRs, Complexity Theory, and Flow are pushing us forward, but for them to flourish, there needs to be an environment that accepts them. That environment must support:
We do not know what we do not know – And more thinking and meetings will not change that fact. Empirical approaches must run through the whole enterprise, not just when building software.
Trust is a two-way street – Not only do we have to trust teams to deliver value, but those team members need to trust that if they help others, they will be rewarded and encouraged. The idea of a self-made person is a false narrative.
Learning never stops and costs money – Everyone needs time for self-development, and that investment is promising them, their teams, and the organization as a whole.
Change is not a project; it is a lifestyle – It is obvious, but we need to build constantly changing organizations and put in place systems (which will change) that inspect and adapt.
There is no U in career – Building skills and learning new things is more important than ever for knowledge workers. But ultimately, success will be driven not by hoarding those skills but by sharing and being an active community member.
Creating that environment is a complex problem, will take time, and will be completed by people understanding and applying the ideas. And over time, those ideas change the environment, making it easier for them to flourish. It is like a flywheel of change.
I wonder what it was like during the Industrial Revolution, as people who lived on the land were encouraged to move to cities and change how they worked, where they lived, and what was important to them. Change has always been difficult; the more significant the change, the greater the resistance. But I have not given up! Change is coming, even if it will take time and require lots of frustration by the people driving it!