Doing Agile Right – Balance!

From the book cover: Agile has the power to transform work – but only if it is implemented the right way. The book dispels the myths and misconceptions that have accompanied agile’s rise to prominence – that it can reshape an organization all at once; or that it should be used in every function and for all types of work. The key is “balance”. Every organization must optimize and tightly control some of its operations and at the same time, innovate. A major theme of the book is that these two areas should be closely tied and be synergistic for “Doing Agile Right”.

This post is about the above book that I read recently – Doing Agile Right – Transformation Without Chaos (HBR Press) by three authors from Bain and CompanyDarrell Rigby, Sarah Elk and Steve Berez. As you can see, a book with solid pedigree and recency (published in 2020). But, my first reaction was “Mmmm…yet another book on agile transformation” and a weary sigh.

Well, what then made me pick it up? Firstly, the book is under 200 pages paperback which made picking up easy! Secondly, I heard about it from a colleague – that it is doing the rounds in some of our customer organizations. Curiosity aroused and not wanting to be left behind our customers, I started reading – without much expectation. But as I progressed, my expectations started increasing and I actually read the book twice – one quite quickly and the second pass slowly, pausing every now and then to digest. All credit to the authors since I am usually not so patient with most management books these days…

You would have got the gist from the book cover excerpt above. Delving into it, I found several refreshing things quite different from the all-rosy partisan stuff. Here are a few samples:

  • Agile is not just about IT & software; the wannabe unicorn who is “agile innovating” on how to deliver organic milk in the Bangalore and such. Rather, the book picks examples from the non-IT sector and organizations not digitally native, delivering in agile fashion banking products, convenience foods, power tools and so on. And not only stories with happy endings but candid analysis of failed initiatives and traumatized employees
  • The authors have consciously maintained a practical and non-didactic style. Also, while they articulate their world view of agile, they back it up with extensive analysis of over seventy pieces of research. These are on questions about the stated benefits of agile and their correlation with actual results in the industry. For example, on the question of whether agile innovation produces better results than traditional methods, 76% of the research reports apparently showed correlation, 10% disagreement and 14% inconclusive. On another question, as to whether benefits persist when agile is scaled across many teams, the numbers are 67%, 4% and 29%. There are three more similar research questions answered. Food for thought…
  • Much blame is usually ascribed to the leadership for failures of agile – not without reason, I suppose. As we have seen ourselves, many leaders “delegate” agile to teams without fully understanding the very fundamental changes required across the organization for results beyond team-level performance. The authors emphasize that leaders should, first of all, understand first-hand how agile works at the team level, internalize and even begin to love that way of working – sort of a foundational thing for them; leaders should understand “flow efficiency” as an organization and not just team’s velocity
  • There is a chapter on “How Agile Do You Want to Be?” which is compelling reading and matter for introspection by leaders; there is the accompanying notion suggested that there is a zone of optimal agility that every organization should determine for itself
  • There are other very useful chapters on agile planning, budgeting and reviewing with practical ways to cut the traditional un-agile ways of going about these functions in large organizations; another chapter on developing an agile operating model at the organization level is quite interesting as well

Enough to pique your interest?

All good words so far. But I also thought of saying something by way of a critique. After thinking hard, I came up with this: the refrain in the book is that many organizations look to cut costs and reduce the workforce in the guise of agile transformation. I would like to believe that that is not as rampant as the book seems to suggest – certainly not in the experience of PM Power Consulting over the past decade and a half. Maybe we have just been fortunate with our more visionary customers who do not believe in such quick-fixes!

To conclude, I think it is a book that should make agile transformation leaders sit up and take note. Maybe it will make some look back and ruefully shake their heads – déjà vu; it should certainly provoke some serious introspection on the part of leaders and trigger actions to address the amber signals in their agile journey; prevent disillusionment and chaos. Agile done right has so much to offer to make it all worthwhile.

Shiv Sivakumar

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