Business Agility Needs to Step Up

lost businessman

Project What?

Let me know if this is sounds familiar:

Two Product Manager’s Eat lunch together

Bill- Hey Diane, hows ProductA going?

Diane- Its crazy, we are completely swamped trying to support initiativeX and projectY. We have not had any time to deal with the tech debt that is mounting up.

Bill- projectY? I remember the CEO was hyped about that work 2 quarters ago, I didn’t realize it was still going on.

Diane-Yea, projectY is a big improvement for my product. It’s hard to rally other teams to help out. How is your team?

Bill- We just got the green light to start working on initiativeZZ. The CEO should be speaking about it in the next town hall. Hopefully you can prioritize the work we need you to do!

From this dialogue, there are too many things going on, and it’s not clear what needs to get done. The business needs to adopt Agile practices across the organization. Not just in the development teams.

Don’t Buzzword Agile

There is so much hype around agile in software engineering. Companies often proclaim agility like it’s a badge of honour. It looks like most groups will adopt the meetings, without the spirit. Often people will talk about Agile and Scrum, but they are tied to the frameworks, instead of true Agile. When in doubt, refer to the original Agile Principles. (You’ll see that there is no line about requiring a standup to be agile.)

From the principles above, there is one that Diane would probably highlight is not happening in her world

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

How can her CEO help build a sustainable list of initiatives?

What is Business Agility?

To steal the line from Wikipedia:

Business agility refers to rapid, continuous, and systematic evolutionary adaptation and entrepreneurial innovation directed at gaining and maintaining competitive advantage. Business agility can be sustained by maintaining and adapting the goods and services offered to meet with customer demands, adjusting to the marketplace changes in a business environment, and taking advantage of available human resources.

There is a nice overlap between the Agile principle and business agility.

A company with too many initiatives, with no clear visual in what cross-product teams are trying to accomplish is not sustainable, and will lead to lagging responses to market changes.

The way this problem can be solved by first identifying what are the big initiatives that each team is rolling their work up into. And then determining if the system has capacity to take in another initiative. The key with this approach is being able to take stock of the whole product department to determine if there is capacity for more work. In the example above, if the CEO only talked to Bill, they would think: “great, the floor has capacity to take more work on.” Not taking into account potential dependancies with Diane’s team, which is at full capacity.

Optimizing Work In Progress

By limiting the number of big initiatives, we are essentially taking advantage of limiting the Work In Progress. Limiting WIP will lead to some teams not being part of big initiatives, which is actually a good thing. It’s not always possible that every team will be required for the top 3 priorities to be achieved. The team can benefit in their “idle” time to deal with tech debt, and individual product improvements that they would not be able to tackle with big initiatives over their heads

Further Reading

A lot of these insights came from the following book: Rethinking Agile: Why Agile Teams Have Nothing To Do With Business Agility.