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How to take agile to the next level

Fin Goulding CIO, Aviva

Many organizations have turned to agile as the answer to their digital transformation needs. But, in fact, they're panicking about the onslaught of startups and the potential disrupters to their business models. The war for talent has exacerbated their fears, and now large corporations are hastily installing pool tables, funky furniture, and free food.

They've missed the point.

Digital transformation can take place only with a real cultural transformation. A good starting point is to push back on what has become the norm in the world of agile: the follow-the-herd mentality driven by companies trying to sell consultancy services, tools, and overly complex frameworks that in reality change very little. Here's how.

Go with the Flow

Technology leaders intuitively know that agile methods are the way forward. In Flow, our minimalist framework for business and technical agility, we say the same. The agile outlook is great, but it was not meant to be about rules and rituals. Nor should it have an IT-only focus, delivered by consultants who are happy to sell expensive services to change-averse business leaders.

Companies are wasting huge amounts of money on what's commonly known as the "frozen middle" or the "corporate immune system." And consultancies are delighted to keep selling.

But the nub of the problem is that business leaders feel excluded from agile by the lexicon of agile methodologies (sprints, burn-up/down, grooming backlogs, refactoring, Scrum masters, etc.) and the lack of focus on their priority: the customer.

In reality, today's agile is devoid of almost anything designed to complement our nontechnical colleagues (a.k.a. "the business"), nor does it provide any place for the end customer.

Being agile is completely different from doing agile.

Agile methods haven't moved with the times. They don’t benefit from daily improvement, or considered retrospective reflection, or human-centered interaction. By this, I mean more than just technical stand-ups, as those are just the bare minimum for how people should work today.

In fact, in Flow, meetings become a thing of the past and people swarm around every manner of interactions. For example, Executives developing a 3-year Business Strategy.

These ways of working have always been the litmus test of a creatively lean and adaptive way of working. No potential employee will ever receive any credit for wanting to challenge agile or wanting to improve it or, indeed, for having great ideas for how it could be different.

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Anyone wanting to join a company that uses agile must either have formal qualifications or loads of time immersed in the method and show a dedication to its rituals. When was that ever a sign of being agile?

Flow is not transfixed on existing components (lean software development, Kanban, etc.), since these can and should be swapped out when better solutions appear. Plus it has a lexicon that is business-friendly. We created a language around Flow that is easy to understand so that ideas will be easy to share.

Flow is fast becoming the de facto framework for business agility, with the greatest interest coming from companies that want to deliver value faster, through a highly engaged workforce.

And Flow principles are designed to address a combination of business and technical challenges facing organizations today, including these three:

1. Value-based decision making

Too often organizations focus on quantity and not value (don't even get me started on the de-prioritization of technical debt). In fact, 80% of customers tend to use 20% of the functionality delivered via systems of engagement.

So why do technical teams get forced into building stuff that’s never used?

In Flow, you prioritize using lean software development practices and Kanban, so teams are shown how to deliver the highest-value pieces of work, frequently, in small reversible batches, and to anticipate failure in order to pivot quickly. Beyond that, we have fleshed out an approach to business-technical integration that is focused entirely on value, driven by customers, from upstream market insight to downstream feature delivery and feedback.

2. Better social interactions

In Flow, you visualize everything, so that one "gets out and stands up." And you favor sticky notes and conversations over highly articulated technical solutions. Daily stand-ups at various walls create social engagement and an audible buzz of energy around the office.

And it's not just the obvious project-based walls. Executive portfolio walls, thank-you walls, jobs walls, customer walls—the list goes on. And once team members are freed from their desks or ticket systems, they form hybrid teams that power increased work velocity, and produce informal test and learn systems. Holistic teams (which contain many more role profiles), by their very creation, remove inefficient hand-offs.

Ironically, many large enterprises that have vehemently resisted initiatives such as DevOps may end up benefiting by going straight to holistic teams. That is, they are going beyond a team of developers, operations people and testers and to encompass many other job roles in order to remove any inefficient hand-offs in the team. This can even include people from HR or Finance depending on the context confronting the team. 

They will be the early adopters of what some folks now call DevOps 2.0, although  but I prefer the term "flow teams," which is less technical and more inclusive.

3. Continuous everything

Rigid agile frameworks are the highest barrier to continuous improvement. Teams that co-design processes and collaborate on all decisions become the biggest advocates for removing waste.

But it needs to go beyond that. Removing waste is only half the job, and it is a very engineering-focused approach.

To interact successfully with peers across the business, you must become pro-value. Hence, within Flow, no two Kanban boards are the same, and teams are encouraged to do whatever gives them the greatest efficiency. Remember, every improvement made to "the process" benefits every project or piece of work that flows through it.

Teams also take control of their personal development through continuous education techniques. Learning new skills can be one of the most invigorating tools of KEEP (key employee engagement processes).

Finally, continuous deployment, coupled with continuous engineering, is the production pipeline for the delivery of value to customers. Companies that have mastered the automated deployment of microservices, serverless architectures, and cloud will win out in the future.

How to stay relevant

Business and technology leaders must change to stay relevant as they face a never-ending disruption to their value-chains, a new generation of workers waiting to be engaged, and the need to break out of their siloed teams, structures, and thinking.

So how do you reach the goal of achieving both business and technical agility? Through new ways of working provided by Flow. 

To learn more about the Flow approach, see Fin's presentation, "Flow: Taking Agile Forward" at DevOps Enterprise Summit London 2018, held on June 25-26. Or read his books, available through the Flow Academy website: Flow: A Handbook for Change-Makers, Mavericks, Innovation Activists & Leaders - Simplifying Digital Transformation and 12 Steps to Flow: The New Framework for Business Agility.

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