A Software Team's Journey to Great Achievements!
It is amazing to watch a few key factors to come together, enabling extraordinary accomplishments. This happened with a group of teams that I headed for several years. This is a journey of five dedicated and capable software teams - a path of greater teamwork, closer partnering with our customers, and game-changing solution deliveries. I initially thought of this as a story about implementing Scrum, but it is much more than adopting a team framework. This is about creating an environment and culture that supports teams and unleashes their creativity.
Agile Transformation. Take One.
Months before my first day with these teams, I became acquainted with their accomplishments and their challenges. As excellent software developers with deep domain knowledge, they were justifiably proud of the high-quality mission critical products they delivered. However, they were frustrated with technical debt, frequent direction shifts and excessive work in process.
With essentially no Agile training or experience, they were attempting to implement practices to improve their Agility - about half of the Manifesto principles were visibly influencing the teams. At first glance, the teams were doing just as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development values guided:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Many meetings and discussions. Few formal processes.
- Working software over comprehensive documentation. The delivered product was the priority. Documentation was rare.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Great feature and capability discussions. No contracts or written agreements.
- Responding to change over following a plan. Very accommodating - willing to pause work on previous requests and shift efforts to new priorities.
Yet the results weren't satisfying to either party. A growing backlog of previously launched projects that were too low a priority to get any attention. Many projects had long durations (an impact of technical debt). IT was reactive to the customer's tactical needs, with scant attention to strategic advances.
Agile Transformation. Take Two.
What a great situation! A grassroots effort to introduce Agility. Engaged business unit leaders and staff. Software products that directly contribute to the organization's mission. (And much more.)
I joined the team with a primary objective of increasing the value of our deliveries to the business units - enabling and guiding our Agile Transformation would be key.
The management team was strongly supportive of implementing Scrum and we took three steps that were instrumental in giving traction to this transformation:
- Arranged for training on Agile principles, Scrum methods and a helpful tool to manage Scrum ceremonies and artifacts.
- Management behavior that encouraged experimentation and trying new techniques without fear of punishment. We became a "free to fail" organization.
- Engaged with business unit leaders to secure their support and participation in adopting new methods.
We didn't have a grand plan for this transformation. We would make some progress, adjust, and give that time to become our new normal, then repeat (this was our PDCA). Reflecting back, three distinct phases are apparent.
1. Optimize Efficiency and Resources
While we weren't in chaos, we did have a bit of looseness in managing our workload. Our optimization included:
- Training for all. Agile, Scrum.
- Implementing Scrum teams and being patient as the teams experimented and adapted to become effective.
- Implementing a Scrum management tool for use by the teams. For us, better than sticky notes.
- Implementing a cadence of deliveries. The teams gradually evolved to an identical two-week sprint cadence.
- Management learning their role in a Scrum organization and shifting away from our traditional methods (e.g., weekly status reports).
- Reducing untethered work (e.g., work not directly related to a customer priority)
- Reducing work in process.
This is foundational, an enabler for value delivery. It is not the end of the journey! Treat this with urgency, with short duration implementation expectations. Don't strive for perfection - the teams will continually improve in time through retrospectives, and management will improve similarly. If you remain solely focused in this stage, without regard to future capabilities, you can expect criticism about excessive focus on process and following a rule book.
2. Optimize the Portfolio, Largely Driven by the Business
This is where we shed our past as "order takers" and became trusted partners with the business. Optimizing the portfolio of IT projects was, for us, much more than textbook project portfolio management:
- Our conversations, once devoted to status of IT projects, became more focused on the performance of business operations, their plans and their pain points. This was significant: we were partners in recognizing and addressing business needs.
- We participated in creating the annual business strategy.
- Now that we had a thorough understanding of business unit goals and performance measures, we could ensure a strong linkage between those goals and our projects.
- We established a pair of quarterly business unit forums to review that quarter's deliveries and prioritize projects for the upcoming quarter. Most importantly, the project prioritization session was chaired by a business executive - a clear statement that business unit leadership had the responsibility of identifying the collective priorities of a dozen leaders and discussing those priorities with IT.
3. Propose High Value Projects
Here's where the magic happens.
With our familiarity of the business along with deep understanding of technology options and capabilities, we were well-positioned to bring proposed solutions to the business. Solutions that represent strategic thinking and are far beyond incremental improvements to the current use of technology. Proposals that introduce disruptive and high impact capabilities, directly improving business performance.
And that's what we did.
In the span of two years, we proposed and delivered four game-changing projects. Any one of these ideas would have been a great success story, and we had four of them!
Here's my favorite. Our lead architect and a colleague conceived of a new capability that would automate some manual tasks that were performed thousands of time each day by the operational teams. The business was enthusiastic about this idea and estimated a 5% time savings with this capability. The CFO called it "Brilliant!" when giving his approval.
This was a large project - an epic that spanned multiple quarters. Our teams performed exceptionally well, and Scrum served us well. Delivery was flawless. Business results were as promised.
Months after release, all business leaders (not just our business unit partners) recognized this capability as one of the top three accomplishments for the enterprise that year!
For us, Agile principles and the Scrum Framework were enablers. Business partnership was essential. The payoff for everyone was building on that foundation and becoming thought leaders and true expert partners to the business.
As you implement your chosen Agile methods, keep your attention on engaging with and providing value to your customer. That is what they want and need from you.
Frequently ask yourself: How is my team helping the business? Is the business performance improving?
I'm interested in hearing from you. What is your experience on a team that has greatly improved value delivery?