Agility; is it a culture, a mindset, or a set practices? In one form or another, this is the question that many are attempting to answer in order to realize Agile's promise. Agility is of course all three, but the one to focus on is mindset. Changing culture sounds to foreboding to seriously consider pursuing, and focusing on practices alone misses the point. Agility is a way of thinking; a way of taking a fresh approach to persistent issues. To realize the promise of agility, we need to start shifting our mindsets about how we engage and lead teams. Here are three key mind shifts to help us started.
From Constraining Change to Embracing Change
The traditional mindset is that change is bad, even feared. It is a sign that we are out of control. The traditional mindset is to work in ways that constrain change, control scope, and ruthlessly focus on staying the course. How has that worked out? A quick look at Jim Collins' 11 Good to Great companies shows us that three, Philip Morris, Gillette and Circuit City, are now gone. A fourth, Fannie Mae, is now government owned. More examples abound. How has Kodak, Polaroid, or Blockbuster fared over the last 10 years?
Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management, has defined agility as "The ability to both create and respond to change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment". It is easy to think of the business environment of the last couple of years as turbulent, yet successful businesses have never stood still. We don't live in a static world, yet we attempt to manage our projects as if we did. The mind shift needed: move from constraining change to embracing or leading change. The agile practices of incremental delivery and continuous feedback are rooted here. Their intent is to help show regular and frequent progress so that we can continually assess our path and make the necessary adjustments. This is our best hope of ensuring our work is of real value to the business, and as the business shifts to better address it needs, our project work can shift too.
From Directed Teams to Self-Organizing Teams
Teams today are often formed to complete work defined by someone else. Then we look to project management to assign work to the individual team members and hold them accountable for completing it. The result is a group of people focused on completing assigned tasks with little or no awareness of the broader purpose. Engagement is low. Morale is low. Innovation is low. The mind shift needed: move from directed teams to self-organizing teams. High performance agile teams are self-organizing and self-directing. Each team member is no longer just accountable for completing the assigned work. The team is jointly accountable for solving the business problem the business needs solved. Team members become accountable to each other and they are jointly accountable for outcomes. Within established boundaries the team makes the decisions around the who does what work when. The result is higher engagement, higher moral, and increased innovation that leads to better solutions. In his book Bioteams, Ken Thompson describes these beliefs of these teams:
- Clear and public accountability
- Trusted competency
- Give and take
- Total transparency
- Shared glory
- Meaningful mission value
- Outcome optimism
Managers often have more trouble with this mind shift than teams do. We want the team to step up and for that to happen management must step back; despite all their training and experience to control instead of let go. Leadership is what is required now. Set direction, set focus, define clear boundaries and then let the team proceed. Daniel Pink, Drive, describes the intrinsic motivations that make these teams thrive: Autonomy -- having the choice about what work to do and how to do it, Mastery -- having the opportunity to grow deep strengths in specific areas of interest, and Purpose -- being part of a larger whole. The leadership challenge is fostering those in ways that are focused on advancing the business goals of the organization.
From Project Management Success to Project Success
On Time; On Budget; Completing All the Requested Work -- the Iron Triangle. Isn't this how we most often assess a project? Isn't this most of the focus of project management? For more than a decade the Standish Group research has shown us that less than one-third of software projects meet this criteria of success. Further, their studies show more than 60% of software features delivered are rarely or never actually used. The mind shift needed: move from project management success to project success. Complementing the notion of growing self-organizing teams jointly accountable for shared outcomes, we need to shift our fo
cus on success criteria. Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management, defines for us a new triangle -- the Agile Triangle -- that puts scope, schedule and cost in their rightful place; as constraints we need to respect. In addition Highsmith defines the Value Goal -- Building a releasable product, and the Quality Goal -- Building a reliable and adaptable product. Let's assess success by the outcomes we produce, how well we solve the business problem; not just by how well we manage to the constraints.
From Practice to Behaviors
The overriding mind shift is to focus less on the world of practices and more on the world of behaviors. Agility is about leveraging the behaviors of collaboration and discovery to produce valuable outcomes that move business organizations forward. To achieve that we must shift our practice-based mindsets to more behavior-based mindsets -- shifting toward embracing change, joint accountability, and focusing on outcomes. The more we allow ourselves to make those mind shifts, the more our teams, leaders, and organizations will benefit.