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Fanning the Flames of Agile
The brilliance of agile is that it is easy to understand
By: Tim Arthur
Jun. 17, 2014 12:45 PM
Knowledge creation is a major source of value creation. And great companies -and their employees - know that continuous learning is a key to generating knowledge, and thus value. The agile mindset, particularly in development, is gaining popularity, with credit to a suite of powerful ideas and practices commonly known as the agile methodology - defined by Wikipedia as "software development methods based on iterative and incremental development."
Agile on Paper
Later that year, Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle, two of the manifesto's signatories, published the watershed Agile Software Development With SCRUM. The authors noted how the Agile Manifesto could map to tangible business practices and showcased how they actually applied it. They described agile in a real-world setting, and the world hasn't been the same since. They moved SCRUM from abstract rugby imagery to concrete possibility.
We learned that agile is an approach for value generation - an approach for moving ideas from an early ideal to sustainable, real-world changes.
Most of all, we learned that agile concepts are valid.
Agile in Practice
Let's look at the company where I work. SAS is the world's largest privately held software company, and we have been proponents of the agile mindset since the company's inception in 1976. SAS invests 25 percent of revenues back into R&D and regards itself as a learning company. We learn by listening; we learn by doing.
SAS first evaluated agile Scrum in 2007. Teams heard of early wins and wanted to apply agile in their own areas. Since then, SAS has formally trained thousands of personnel and invested in an infrastructure for its R&D portfolio. At SAS, agile is applied across the enterprise. It's used to manage small projects and very large projects encompassing hundreds of staff members. It's also used to bring a common approach to how SAS manages its products.
Agile is empirical - that is, we apply, learn and adapt. It is true for applying any one specific agile practice, and it is true for applying agile at scale over years. This leads to some questions: What did we learn? How did we adapt? Moreover, what cultural norms did we lean on to help garner such a strong embrace of agile and its benefits? Knowing the answers to these questions could help accelerate your own success story.
We Learned One Size Does Not Fit All
Instead of mandating the same approach for everyone, we fostered a grass-roots movement. Concurrently, we used a senior executive as an advocate and recruited an operational agile champion to drive the rollout. It is important for the executive team to understand and expect agile from its teams, but not from a single template.
We adapted by creating the flexible SAS Agile Framework. It includes three integral parts: setup (training and coaching), defined practices, and an agile team self-assessment survey. The framework is helping us meet demands and energize teams with the freedom to envision and realize exciting opportunities.
Agile is applied differently in R&D, Pubs, IT, Professional Services, and other divisions in SAS. Practices are configured in the best way for the teams and markets they serve.
We Learned to Nurture the Movement
Just as with every team member, every team is different. When a team member became critical of certain agile practices for a team, we listened closely.
A Journey, Not a Destination
We Adapted Our Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)
We Adapted by Investing in Agile Coaches
A common question asked with enterprises new to agile is: Who should play the role of the Scrum master? At SAS, this role fell to our project managers. We were fortunate. Publicly held firms find this challenging because of the required mechanisms and extra control systems their project managers must handle. Although SAS is a $3 billion dollar company, we're private and can operate unencumbered.
In our journey we noticed that teams fared better when they engaged with experienced agile veterans - they got up to speed faster. We looked closer and found by internal survey data that coaching has a positive correlation on all of intended benefits of Scrum. We now have a large team of trained coaches engaged with their own teams and others as well.
We Adapted by Tirelessly Encouraging Transparency
For example, our teams openly discuss the agile self-assessment surveys. Teams independently record and then jointly discuss summary and detailed data scores and write-in comments. The discussion is useful for identifying two to three action items, but even more useful for helping teams build trust and maturity.
A word of caution, however: Be careful when looking at agile metadata between teams. Teams perform at different rates, have different compositions, and come to know requirements estimates (story points) differently. Asking a team why its numbers are different from another's can threaten its freedom and inadvertently move them to game. Can we benefit from enterprisewide analysis? Yes, if we thoroughly describe to teams the intention of such an analysis and why it's being done. It helps drive corporate training and updates upper management on progress, for instance.
We Adapted by Bringing a New Meaning to the Term ‘Flexible'
In the internal survey mentioned earlier, we noticed something profound. Teams that tended to adopt agile practices with a higher degree of maturity tended to have better results overall. Intuitively, one might suspect this to be true - and the data objectively proved it. That evidence makes it even easier for staff members at all levels to commit.
SAS is an agile company. Our customers and workforce are increasingly receptive to the large-scale implementation of agile Scrum. It's now a part of our daily fiber and undoubtedly will continue to be part of our ongoing success.
The brilliance of agile is that it is easy to understand. The danger of agile is that it is easy to understand, and can be underestimated. Be mindful of what it takes to employ it well to yield the most benefit. Engage. Find a cohort, a validation pilot, a way to connect. Most of all, enjoy the journey.
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