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Being agile when the tech lets you down

  • Posted on June 30, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 5 minutes
Being Agile When Tech Lets You Down

A very large proportion of organisations aspire to be agile; many are already on that journey and some have already managed to achieve it. From a business perspective, the benefits are obvious – value is realized sooner if it is possible to get to market more quickly. It is this rapid transition from idea to market, at the heart of agile, that is driving the adoption of agile practices.

Technology letting you down?
Many organisations have grappled with the concept of ‘being agile’ and have struggled to see a path to achieving agility. Therefore, agility has been fundamentally seen as a technology problem. This has manifested itself in several ways, but often organisations have adopted an agile methodology such as Scrum; project teams have been rebadged as feature or product teams (but the fundamental shift from project to product has been ignored); requirements are user stories, and technology such as build orchestrators and test automation are introduced to facilitate agile development. This represents a significant change for many organisations – they are doing agile rather than being agile – and this often requires considerable investment. DevOps is often touted as a silver bullet, solving all the past, present and future (!) problems in an organisation. It is expected that during the transformation to being agile, there will be a drop in productivity but that this will soon recover, and productivity will increase.

The organisation will seek to quantify the return on investment often in outdated ways such as lines of code per developer and will likely find that the expected increase in productivity has not materialized and start looking to understand why. It is at this point that the finger is pointed at the (existing, mind you) technology stack – it’s the legacy systems that don’t lend themselves to automation, it’s the wrong test automation tool or it’s the agile enablers that are responsible. In other words, organisations feel that they have been let down by the technology. They view their failure to realize the benefits of agility as a technology failure and conveniently ignore the other key pillars that need to be in place for a successful agile transformation. At this point, they start to question whether agile is right for them and they slip back into old and, for many people, well understood or comfortable ways of working.

Cultural change
It is this view that there is a definite technology solution to agility that is in fact the real problem. With this mindset, Agile and DevOps are simply products that can be bought and installed and once trained the transition to agile is complete. The organisation is doing agile. Gaining the true benefits of agility goes much deeper than technology and a few tweaks around the edges of team structures. For an organisation to achieve agility, a change in organisational culture is the foundation on which the transition is based. It requires a commitment to structural transformation with a shift from top-down command and control leadership and a transfer of power to the teams to decide what can be achieved. Management behaviours shift from task allocation to outcome focused people enablement. This fosters a culture of collaboration and innovation that leads to the use of appropriate technology to help realize the vision of reducing the time to market.

Technology does of course play a part in this transformation, but it is not the starting point. A team that is truly empowered to take decisions and to seek innovative ways to work smarter may identify technology that will help to reduce the time taken to release a feature while also improving quality. In this scenario, it is not the technology that is driving change – that is just the effect. The real cause of change is a cultural shift within the organisation that has allowed the team to identify a method for improvement and they have then selected a technology to enable this, while being supported by the leadership team (and whoever else is below in the organisational chart). A cultural shift such as this also offers the opportunity to elevate agility beyond technology and allow teams across the organisation regardless of function to operate in a flat hierarchy where they are empowered to collaborate and make decisions.

People, process, and products
Of course, cultural transformation is much harder than introducing new technology alongside some restructuring. It requires real commitment across the organisation at all levels for what is, to many people, a very unsettling change.

Even DevOps itself is defined by Donovan Brown (Partner Program Manager at Microsoft) as, “The union of people, process and products to enable continuous delivery of value to our end users,” showing that the most important item in the list are people, followed by process – tools are only an enabler, important, but still an enabler.

Traditional structures are removed and people who are used to or feel comfortable with being told what to-do must start taking greater responsibility and ownership. Those who are used to issuing instructions, defining what should happen, and being accountable must relinquish control and learn to trust their teams to make good decisions. The agile frameworks, tools, and processes are a guide that help people to adopt new behaviours, and this then influences organisation culture. Organisations who make a commitment to being agile must ultimately make a commitment to the people in the organisation that they will support cultural change and enable people to express their potential to their best. The organisation must understand how difficult this can be, that people struggle with change and that they need a great deal of help and support to do this.

Becoming an agile organisation can appear to be easy – just introduce Scrum and the ceremonies that go with it, invest some money on technology with a vision of automating everything, and the benefits will be there for the taking. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. It is hard to be agile and it won’t be the technology that lets you down; it will be a failure to commit to cultural change that empowers the teams combined with reinforcing measures, motivators, and mindsets that help people to roll-forward into further agility that is needed.

Ultimately, a change to being agile is worth the pain of cultural transformation. There is no guaranteed recipe for success however changes to behaviour that drives a cultural change and brings about empowerment of the teams will deliver the competitive advantage that all organisations seek but not all have the commitment to achieve.

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