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Are you being agile—or just doing agile?

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

As agile ideas spread throughout the enterprise, managers and knowledge workers alike often become confused. Isn't agile just for software development? Do we have to use Scrum?

And it's easy to confuse doing agile—following a set of guidelines defined by a framework—with being agile, which means following a set of values and principles that you've created specifically for your organization.

Too often, the leaders of an organization undergoing an agile transformation think all that's involved is learning a new framework. But understanding the agile mindset, exemplifying agile values at all levels—being agile—is critical to building a truly agile organization.

Here are six questions that every organization undergoing an agile transformation should ask to determine whether it's going beyond doing agile to truly being agile.

Did you make the Agile Manifesto and principles your own?

Any type of agile training typically begins with references to the Agile Manifesto and the 12 supporting agile principles. Students studying for agile certifications will go about memorizing these value statements and principles, and then think that they understand what it means to be agile.

But working in a particular way, embracing and exemplifying a philosophy, or creating a culture is not something that can happen overnight. And it doesn't happen by memorizing principles.

Also, the Agile Manifesto and principles, written back in 2001, are almost two decades old now, and they're centered on software development. Although the manifesto and its 12 principles still are strong guidelines for a happier, more productive workforce that delivers value, you will probably need to tweak them so they apply to your specific culture and organization.

As organizations expand agile concepts to all areas of business, it's more important than ever to understand agile principles and adapt them appropriately. In fact, new variations of agile mindsets are emerging, such as "modern agile" and "heart of agile." 

While you can review these other approaches, being agile ideally means building your organization's own unique manifesto and set of principles. You can start with a tried-and-true model, but making it your own is part of what up-levels any skill from "doing" to "being."

Have you adopted an agile leadership style?

Leadership that embraces the agile mindset is one of the most important factors in a successful agile transformation. The style of leadership most often taught with agile transformations is "servant leadership," which advocates leading from the heart.

Agile leadership is one in which the leader’s role is to help every individual grow their own skills by empowering and supporting their development. Rather than directing staff, an agile leader provides strategic direction and guidance, offering a safe space for staff to learn, innovate, and grow.

Agile leaders are respected for their wisdom in growing an organization that provides trust and transparency and fosters an environment in which there's strong communication and collaboration.

Are your teams collaborative and cross-functional?

Strong communication, collaboration, and teamwork are highly emphasized traits in agile environments. People and relationships are highly valued—more so than processes and tools. People are encouraged to creatively question old processes, to think critically, and to share and experiment with new ideas.

Agile practices discourage working in functional silos, instead promoting the idea of cross-functional teams where regular communication occurs between business and technical folks.

Being agile means encouraging self-organized teams, where knowledge workers have more autonomy, rather than traditional teams, where a manager assigns the work. Self-organizing teams learn to operate using working agreements, holding each other accountable so that the team meets its commitments.

Do you deliver value quickly?

To deliver value quickly, agile promotes delivering "just enough," keeping simplicity in mind, with the goal of enabling faster feedback loops. This is opposed to a traditional waterfall model that uses Big Design Up Front (BDUF).

An agile mindset is one that promotes working iteratively and incrementally while receiving frequent feedback from the customer. Rather than spending a lot of time on planning before beginning the work, the agile approach promotes creating a minimum viable product—a small unit that provides value.

By providing something of value quickly to the customer (whether internal or external), you can gather critical feedback. This empirical model allows the customer and the team to incorporate changes based on what they learn as they're building their product or creating a service.

Your organization can easily adapt agile practices outside of software development by having every team recognize the value it is providing and by knowing the customers who will receive that value. Your teams should work to deliver value and receive feedback regularly.

Do you have fast feedback loops for continuous improvement?

Improvement and growth are common themes in agile, and quick feedback loops allow for continuous improvements in the product or service you're delivering.

Agile teams also look for ways to improve internal processes, communication, and teamwork. The Agile Manifesto’s 12th principle reads: "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."

This principle is codified in the popular Scrum framework. With Scrum, you hold a recurring meeting at the end of each iteration where the team discusses what worked well, what could have been better, and what changes it will make in the next iteration.

For those using Kanban, a key element is to analyze and optimize flow. Again, you do this by reflecting on how things were done before, looking for bottlenecks or waste, and finding ways to improve.

Does your organization embrace change, innovation, and learning?

One advantage of working in short iterations with continuous feedback loops is that such processes provide the ability to quickly change direction as needed.

Traditional environments are often impeded by their inability to make changes quickly. One of the biggest motivators for an agile transformation is that agile processes and frameworks recognize that in order to succeed, change, innovation, and learning are required.

Rather than try to squelch the inevitable changes that occur over time, agile frameworks provide techniques that help manage those changes as well as provide opportunities for innovating and learning.

Those with an agile mindset recognize the benefits of using a model that allows the organization to change and grow.

It all begins with cultural change 

For an organization to truly undergo a successful agile transformation, it must do more than follow an agile framework. A true agile transformation requires a cultural shift—one in which the organization lives by a set of agile values and principles.

Your organization won’t become agile by blindly following the rules of an agile framework or a checklist, or by doing agile activities. Only by practicing, embracing, and expanding upon the agile principles can your organization develop an agile mindset in its everyday practices.

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