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Why agile leaders should stop demanding consistency from teams

Anthony Crain Delivery Manager, Agile Transformation, Cprime

Most of my clients have asked how we plan to ensure consistency in their agile transformation. They say they need a "consistent flavor of agile" and that "the problem" is that their teams are not practicing a uniform flavor of agile. They also ask about how to ensure that their coaches are giving consistent advice and not contradicting one another.

I look forward to this moment. It is my first chance to start working on changing my client's culture, and to start helping the leaders who make these requests begin their agile mindset journey.

The request for consistency is, in fact, an agile anti-pattern.

Agile asks leaders to allow teams to self-organize. This is one of the hardest challenges in agile transformation and a topic of its own to explore. But if the organization adopts this idea, and teams self-organize, that will lead to inconsistent practices and approaches.

So organizations that demand agile uniformity will be unlikely to achieve self-organizing teams.

Why variability is your best bet

If we look at lean, it asks us to exploit variability. By this it means: Look for variations in the practices and results, and find out, for the highs and the lows, what causes them. Make good patterns repeatable and share them among more teams. Capture bad patterns and share those as well, along with the results they lead to.

Organizations that demand consistency will have no variability to exploit.

A simpler way to look at this idea: Think about your high-performing teams. Are they doing things the same way as everyone else? Probably not. When you tell high-performing teams to conform to a standard agile approach, you are telling them to slow down. That is probably not your desired outcome.

[ Related: Agile extended: 3 business agility trends to watch in 2019 ]

Consistency also hampers agility in other ways. People are quick to say, "That's not how we do it here," and, "We've always done it this way," and resist any outside ideas. Agile teams that are told consistency is no longer the goal tend to be more experimental and open to new ideas. These ideas might come from team members, or from outsiders.

But if teams are told to be consistent with an established agile practice set, they can easily dismiss any new ideas that might in fact be better than their current approach.

Training can suffer, too

Some clients tell me not to change their training, because hundreds of people have taken a particular version and they want everyone to have a consistent experience. When the ratings on these same courses were low, they were valuing consistency over quality.

A more agile approach would be to test out another course on a subset of people and measure the results. But even when we've explained this to some clients, they say they want to stick to the consistent training instead. Because if the new class is better, they'll have to start all over. 

Consistently progressing toward a lower-quality endpoint can still look better in metrics than starting over with a better solution.

These comments often come from the people leading the agile transformation. If the agile leaders can't pivot on something as simple as a training class, it's unlikely they'll have the ability to pivot when the business landscape shifts.

Clients also want coaches to be consistent with one another. This is another antipattern. For one, it is impossible to achieve. Every coach has a unique background, and even the most advanced thought leaders in the agile industry disagree with one another on many topics. Second, it is better when you learn different approaches.

Even so, some clients have said they don't want two employees with different coaches to compare notes and discover they've been given very different guidance.

But, in fact, that is a great thing. Team members should be open to the ideas of others, and decide if they would like to try them out as an experiment on their own teams. If they find a practice that they like better, they can share their journey with the community, often through a community of practice collaboration.

How to resist sameness

So the next time a leader asks for a consistent flavor of agile, consider these steps:

  • Recognize that the request for consistency is an antipattern.
  • Embrace this as a coaching moment and help the leader understand why it is an antipattern by using the ideas above.
  • Analyze why consistency seems so important to the leader and discuss how variability might be better able to achieve the goals the leader has in mind.
  • Teach the leader how to detect and exploit variability.

Here's how to exploit variability:

  • Allow teams and coaches to find their own paths.
  • Measure teams using a model such as the QPPE model I have previously written about.
  • Look for unusually successful metrics and unusually unsuccessful metrics.

A word about metrics

For the unusually successful metrics, work to understand the reason the metric looks so good. It could be a reusable pattern. Or it could be a data anomaly, or it might be real but not repeatable. If some of these lead to harvestable patterns, you can share those with other teams to see if you can replicate the strong metrics.

You need to find metrics that are "chance-cause" and can be dismissed, or that have an "assignable cause" and can lead to stronger practices.

Also, never reward or punish a strong or weak metric. Punishing metrics will only ensure that people don't share them. Instead, if a metric leads to a reusable practice, and that practice helps other teams, reward the teams who found the practice, shared the practice, and proved that the practice was repeatable.

Notice that bad metrics can also lead to repeatable practices, which means you might find yourself rewarding teams that had bad metrics! If a bad metric leads to a repeatable new good practice, that, too, should be rewarded.

Once leaders realize that exploiting variability is more powerful than demanding consistency, your organization will make a huge leap forward in its agile transformation.

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