Agility in three - Part 2: Keep moving and learning

27 May

In my last article I wrote about the first steps in moving to agility; Agility in three: Setting up for success. This article is the second in the series that picks up from where the first left off. The first stage is about laying the foundations for agility to viralise through your organisation.

Once an organisation has set itself up for success then we have to convert theory (the plan) into action (delivery)! This is where true value is achieved and learning occurs.


Stage 2: Keep moving and learning

The ideal is to iterate through activities to maximise learning, to focus on achieving value frequently, and to gather as much feedback as possible, as quickly as possible to create a true learning organisation. Here are some key elements for moving and learning.


Build a process - structured thinking, decision making and problem-solving.

Another agility/lean/modern working adage that teams need to adopt. It means that we need to have a lifecycle or workflow that promotes doing the right work, with the right people at the right time. This means structured thinking, decision making and problem-solving.

A lot of teams think that agility does not mean planning or processes, but true organisational agility means alignment and delivery of value, which means that teams and organisations need to understand the stages of delivery, what happens at each stage, who needs to be involved and why.

To work in stages and iterations teams need to be able to break their work down into smaller elements. This is best done by asking:

  • What do we need to know?

  • When do we need to know it?

  • Who can help us find the knowledge?

With this in mind, the organisation can define their workflow processes, identifying key decisions to be made, when they need to be made and who needs to be involved in the process. This will identify a process that allows the right work (decisions/problem solving) to be done at the right time (idea/product maturity) by the right people (teams, decision-makers, people with a holistic view of the work).


Fail fast and fail well - accelerate the achievement of value.

By having a process we can then talk about “what comes next” which then means we can start thinking about and understanding valuable outcomes, ideally defined before work on the “next step” begins. By planing to understand the needs of the next stage before beginning the work to deliver it, organisations can accelerate the achievement of value to be ahead of the curve quickly! If we don’t understand the required outcomes, can’t create them as expected or are struggling to achieve value; then we have to stop and learn, not mindlessly plough on! Iterative learning cycles means short, sharp timeboxes of value delivery that allow us to constantly learn and adjust.

The outcome of each stage of product or idea maturity needs to be valuable and enable decisions to be made — either carry on, or stop, or go back. This is the essence of an agile lifecycle — being able to go to the stage needed to solve a problem or make a decision; having the right people involved and knowing what the ideal/valuable outcome is.


Powerful prioritisation.

All work that is being done needs to be validated and prioritised against other options of work to ensure that teams are always working on the most valuable work for the organisation.


Distributed decisions - true value is delivered and learning occurs.

All work done by an organisation is about decision making, so to be more effective and efficient the decisions need to be distributed, and the decisions need to be made by the groups who have the best information. This distributed decision making is very aligned to David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around” leadership approach. Taking the decision to the information means that decisions happen in the right way, at the right time. It’s about maximising the flow of information through the teams and organisations.


Understand “enough.”

Distributed decision making and knowing when to stop is all predicated on a team’s ability to define “enough” and stop working on one thing, moving onto the next thing, when “enough” has occurred. This is all about defining and understanding the acceptance criteria for each element or artefact to be delivered. Ideally, the acceptance criteria are defined by the receiver of any work, before the work begins! This is the embodiment of the lean “pull versus push” approach and mindset. Only deliver what the receiver wants and needs, and deliver it in a way that is most beneficial to them. This is where a team can work together to define “enough” and clear priorities for maximum value delivery. Teams need to discuss and understand what is known, and what is unknown, and then define approaches to find them both out.


Feedback loops.

The whole point of breaking work down and working iteratively is to learn and adjust as we go. This means building feedback loops into the processes that teams define. The feedback loops need to validate both the product being delivered, i.e. is it valuable? Is it meeting the acceptance criteria?; and the process being used to deliver it, i.e. is the process working? Can it be optimised? The size of the activities in these feedback loops need to follow the “rule of halves”.

The length of any process stage or iteration should be long enough to create some value, but short enough to throw away what was created if it’s wrong! To maximise value delivery teams work iteratively so there are regular feedback loops in their delivery cycles, there should also be at least one feedback loop built into the process, halfway through the iteration or activity, to check progress and if the work being done is not delivering value, the team still has half the iteration to learn and adjust and deliver value. Do enough to get it checked, check it, continue or learn and adjust.

If at the end of the stage the outcome is valuable then decide collaboratively if the team keeps going or moves onto something else of a higher priority.

If at the end of a stage or iteration the outcome is not valuable, then decide collaboratively what went wrong, what can we do to fix it, should we fix it, should we continue or should we change? The ideal is to constantly be learning and adjusting.

The next article will focus on teamwork, and how important collaboration, shared understanding.


Posted by Sharon Robson.