Agile – Smagile: who cares? (not me)

After over a decade of working in it full-time, I want to see if I can figure out what I think about agile. This is the first of an ad-hoc series of posts where I’ll think out loud on this.

Agile transformations seem to be the in-thing these days. They used to be called agile transitions but I guess that didn’t sound profound enough. A few years ago I recall how colleagues and others in the agile community excitedly proclaimed “agile is mainstream now”. I probably said it too. Sometimes I might still, though I’m not really sure what it means. As I look around at and read about organisations and teams I’m not sure I recognise that agile concepts are fully embraced and “mainstream”. More widespread? Sure. Adopted as mainstream? I don’t really think so.

While I certainly see and experience significant demand for help with agile practices, I’d like to pause and ask: do you think that your customers care about how you and your teams work? I suspect that what they actually care about is the product or service that they pay you to provide them with. Of course you know that. We all talk about customer-centricity and about customer value frequently. However, when we take on organisational change such as adopting agile principles and practices it’s easy to get caught up in it and become a bit introspective. Teams seem to start to obsess about following the right process and lose sight of what their customers really care about (and so why the team really exists at all).

I have three questions to offer. They go like this:
– Are we delivering outcomes our customers love?
– Are we delivering the outcomes as fast as our customers can consume them?
– Are we learning, improving and having fun along the way?

Putting it even more briefly I think it’s about value, pace and engaged improvement. That’s it: I don’t think that there is much more to it than being able to or actively working towards saying yes to each of those questions.

Maybe you can stop here. Maybe those three questions are enough in themselves.

If you stay, what I think that I want to do from here is to poke each question a bit. I want to better understand what I think is behind each of them. I want to look at each in turn and see if I’m right: do they really do cover all that needs to be covered, or are there other things that I’ve missed?

I don’t think that these questions are original or some profound insight by me. Although I’ve not seen them set out before, I suspect that plenty of more eloquent authors have written something like them elsewhere. They are just the three things that I think count most when I am working with individuals, teams or organisations.

Slight self-indulgent detour: feel free to skip over…

I’ve arrived at this point after having worked with teams of one sort or another since 1985 when I was commissioned into the British Army. I left the Army after almost a decade and then moved, via a degree in computing and informatics, into technology. First as a software developer then project manager and then consultant for another decade. For the last 10+ years I’ve been working as what most people these days call an Agile Coach. I don’t like the term much but I can’t think of anything better that makes sense and/or doesn’t make me sound like a complete tosser.

Who is this for? To be honest, primarily this is all for me. I’ll be most surprised if more than a handful of people read this far. I think it’s to help me get my own thoughts about all this stuff sorted out. It’s an exercise to see if what I think that I think actually makes some kind of sense. I don’t think I can define an audience beyond myself; partly because I can’t actually imagine that this will really be of interest to anyone else.

While I’m talking all about me I’ll say something else. Despite my belief nobody will read this, I confess to being vaguely terrified of writing and publishing. I feel self-conscious and more than slightly foolish. But I’ll try to do this “out loud” and maybe whoever you are you can help me too. You can help by feeding back and in doing so showing me the types of you who like this are and what bits are and aren’t useful / interesting.

Of course, while they stand as three separate questions, life isn’t that neat and tidy. There is overlap between what is behind the questions. You may feel that something that I put in one section really belongs in another. You will probably be right. I don’t know what to do about that. I guess I’d say that we need to see the whole. Maybe once we can do that it matters less where any of the individual bits are discussed. Good grief, it’s getting meta already.

As I start this I think that I can see the main parts of each of these questions. I’ll set that thinking out below. In future posts I’ll work through them in more detail. I’m pretty sure that as I do that my thinking will change so I may have to redefine them again due course.

Value: Are we delivering outcomes our customers love?
Answering this question is all about how to go about identifying customers and what makes them tick. About how to bring that learning into shape everything we do so that we keep what we produce relevant in a rapidly changing world. We need to understand our customer and the problem space that we operate in.
To the earlier point on the overlap between questions, understanding and staying clear on what customers love is continual. It has peak periods of focus but it runs through much of what we do every day.

Pace: Are we delivering the outcomes as fast as our customers can consume them?
I think that the answer to this question is all about structure, governance and process.

Engaged Improvement: Are we learning, improving and having fun along the way?
The last question but arguably the most important. The answer to the this question is rooted in people. It’s about creating an environment that clearly expects and allows our people to just focus on doing the right thing and get on with it.


Note: I’ve used terms like “customer” and “product” and “outcome” talked about what the customer “pays for”.

  • I’m using “customer” to identify anyone who consumes what you provide. You might call them users, clients, patients, readers, consumers, audience, viewers, listeners, consumers, volunteers, or something else. I’m probably just going to say customer. You know what I mean: you create something for someone else. I’m talking about the someone else.
  • Also I get that your customers might not be paying you in the traditional sense of a cash transaction. But maybe they give you their attention or time. Whatever it is on the other side of what you do. Whatever the someone else gives you for what you create.
  • Finally, I use the term “outcome” as a neutral term meaning the result of you delivering your service, product, or whatever it is that you provide for the someone else.

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