Meta-Agility

I’ve been a professional software development consultant for 3 years now and I’ve seen agile methodologies become very popular in the company I work for. A lot of people have started using SCRUM on their customer projects and the approach has proven to be very successful. I think that the most surprising realization people have come to is that for years, if not decades, we’ve been stuck with the old way of doing it, thinking that software development could be planned and industrialized just like any manufacturing process. And a lot of software projects have failed, over and over again, before some people actually started to think outside of the box and came up with a more pragmatic and realistic approach.

Now, even though the methodologies themselves are very interesting, even though those methodologies still have plenty of room for improvement, I’m starting to see people trying to map agile methodologies on other things than just software development. People extract small chunks of SCRUM, like managing tasks through post-it notes, frequent synchronization meetings, specifying deliverables in user stories. But after playing a few months with these fun tools, they are starting to realize that they don’t work so well out of context. Because what makes SCRUM so powerful is the fact that it is a small but very consistent set of practices that all work together with common objectives to reach: the four principles of the Agile Manifesto. And it’s becoming obvious now that we cannot just take a few of these practices out of context and expect them to work for other purposes.

In fact, I have the feeling that people are more and more seduced by the meta-level of agility, the reflexion that led us to rethink our whole way of working to reach better results. And in my opinion, THIS is what we need to reproduce: the approach that led us to design the methodology, not the methodology itself.

Let’s try to analyze this generic approach:

First of all, let’s define our scope. For SCRUM, it was software projects with everyone working on the same spot at the same time. In Axen right now, it’s change management, more precisely how do we introduce a new business model into our company while keeping up the good work on the existing one.

Second, what’s wrong with our current way of working? For software projects it was that everything was linear (analysis, design, development, testing) and offered really poor visibility on how things were going. For our change management process, it’s the fact that all the team work is pretty much done in disconnected after-hour meetings, because everyone has a day job to keep the existing model running. The end result is that a lot of energy is wasted in pointless discussions and motivation is lost inbetween meetings, people working pretty much on their own.

To be more precise, agile methodology gurus have come up with a very interesting way to think of failures and solutions in a very constructive manner: what do we value over what? For change management, examples could be:

  • remote collaboration over individual work and synchronization meetings
  • small manageable objectives rather than big multi-year expectations everyone loses sight of
  • professional evolution over personal sacrifices in exchange for fun

At least that’s my view of what’s not ticking in our current way of doing it. I know that other people have different views and hopefully we’ll soon have a debate and come up with a consensus on the four or five values we need to encourage for everything to work.

Then when you know the values you have to put forward in order to reach your objectives on any project in the same context, you can start to think of the tools and practices you need to implement:

  • remote collaboration can be helped with collaboration software easing communication and issue tracking
  • user stories are good for software, but the actor/action/goal paradigm might not be the most adapted to the implementation of new business practices. We have to be creative and find a new way to define our “requirements”.
  • change management cannot be free, and investing money to free up time is not enough. Maybe some of this money needs to be dedicated to training participants on new techniques and knowledge that will improve their professional experience while developing the global expertise of the company.

And of course, once again, plenty of ideas can come up if we allow ourselves to think outside of the box and stop trying to make new stuff with spare parts from old stuff.

I will soon try to initiate this reflexion inside Axen and hopefully we’ll come of with a new change management methodology that embraces the constraints of this context rather than trying to hide them under the carpet. To be followed…

By the way, if you work for Axen, you know that the company takes great pride in involving consultants into its evolution. So what do you find motivating or not when working on those internal projects? If you don’t work for Axen then maybe you’ve worked on similar change management projects and you have your own experience on how to make it work while involving everyone in the process. I’m very interested in your feedback.

    3 thoughts on “Meta-Agility”

    1. As I said, I don’t think SCRUM/Agile practices can work outside of the software industry but the process that led to their design can certainly be reproduced in other domains. It’s all about facing and embracing constraints in order to organize ourselves in a more pragmatic and realistic way.

      Don’t forget that SCRUM/Agile practices took inspiration in lean manufacturing.

    2. Seb,
      As I participed to the promotion of AGILE as an alternative methdo within AXEN ;-), I would like to give my first 6 month expereince return on the benefits I already see :
      1. User stories:
      * As a prodcut owner, I was delighted to be challenged on my user stories. Do I really want that? Is it the best solution? -> it avoids certainly to fall into the famous “I think that… and do that” ;-)
      * it foces us to cut the work in small achievable tasks-> easier to do remotly
      * I feel more confortable in defining users stories step by step, not in the beginning of the project.
      2. Animation
      * it’s a kind way to do control !

      I fully agree that we have to invent a way of working. As an innovator, you certainly know that the most majority of innvations haven’t been created by a genious minds ex nihilo but by minds that are genius in associating different things together. So, the more you discover and practice new things, the more you increase your potential of innovation!

      To my mind, any method (how) will repalce the most important thing in a project: LEADERSHIP (why).

      Last specific remark concerning AXEN and people implication: poeple need to understand that the best return they can have is learning… To be motivated, they do need to know what they want to learn… in an active way.

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