Agile Straight Up: Delivering Value


The next time you visit your local watering hole, give some thought to the bartenders and servers and the practices they use. From streamlining team processes to rewarding team performance to always keeping the customer in mind, there are some similarities in the principles used in the agile community and in the service industry.

Recently, a client remarked to me that the adoption of some agile practices can “really shake things up.” A colleague and I stopped at a neighborhood bar after work to discuss the comment. The setting brought to mind James Bond’s preference for his martinis to be “shaken, not stirred,” yet I know from first-hand experience that other martini aficionados are adamant that martinis are to be stirred, not shaken.

I know because I was a bartender before I entered the world of software engineering, and once I shared that with my colleague, we soon began to spot some similarities between agile practices and the service industry. Let’s look at two of these practices and their parallels in the world of cocktails.

Streamlining Team Processes

Among team leaders and members, I have frequently encountered the belief that process definition and improvement are no longer important in agile. In my experience, successful teams share a common purpose and collaborate to define (and improve) the processes they will use to efficiently deliver value. This is true whether customers are bar patrons or software product clients.

To a bar patron waiting for a drink, fast service has high value. To enable a bartender to quickly make a drink, the bottles of liquor used most frequently are in the “speed rail” of each service station. Placing the bottles in the same sequence in all speed rails enables faster service and less wasted time. When setups are inconsistent, bartenders have to stop and look at each bottle to ensure they have the right one, which leads to an increase in the time to make a drink—and likely a decrease in tips.

However, a collaborative team whose common purpose is customer service might decide that all speed rails should be set up consistently, based on the drinks they make most frequently at that establishment. When the setup is consistent, all bartenders can efficiently work at any service station or easily cover other shifts.

One of the principles supporting the Agile Manifesto is “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” You can observe this in action in a bar when a team of bartenders collaborates to design and implement their standard speed rail setup with efficiency, productivity, and customer service in mind, rather than individual personal preference.

An agile team’s speed rail equivalent might be members agreeing on definitions of terms they will use consistently throughout the project. Just as with the bartenders, such consensus helps reduce misunderstandings and interruptions to flow. Agile teams who haven’t established a common taxonomy can find themselves repeatedly discussing, “What do you mean when you say ‘done’?” or “I don’t know what you call it where you came from, but I call that ‘ready.’”

Development teams can watch for activities that waste time and hamper throughput, then discuss in retrospectives how to remedy these situations.

Rewarding Team Performance

One of the challenges some organizations and teams face when adopting the “it’s about the goal, not the role” philosophy is shifting away from rewarding individual performance toward rewarding team performance. The hospitality industry is facing this shift also, in the controversial concept of pooled tips.

In the United States, most food servers are paid less than the minimum wage, with the assumption being that the customer will tip the server and make up the pay gap. Even though tips are not required and not guaranteed, this practice leads to a server focusing on the customers in their assigned section and not being as concerned about meeting the needs of customers in other servers’ sections. Although tips are seen as a personal reward for good service, company policy or state law may require a server to pass on a share of the tips they receive to other staff, such as hostesses who seat guests or busboys who clean tables.

In a pooled tip system, all tips are combined and apportioned at the end of a shift according to law and policy. The thinking is that all customers are everyone’s customers, and everyone who is involved in providing an excellent customer experience should share in the reward, regardless of their specific roles.

The idea of rewarding team performance rather than individual performance can be a disrupting and unsettling shift for agile team members, whether they support or oppose the idea. Keep in mind that when you meet at happy hour to talk about it, your servers may be experiencing a similar situation!

A development team that has achieved its common goal should be rewarded as a team. This could be something that benefits the team collectively, such as lifting a workplace rule that gets in the way of productivity, providing an amenity that will be used by all, or recognition of the accomplishment by leadership. If ideas like these aren’t appropriate for your team, rewards can be personal, such as a gift card or half a day off, but it’s important that the amounts be the same for everyone.

Tending to Value

Whether you prefer your martinis shaken or stirred, the next time you visit your local watering hole, give some thought to the bartenders and servers and the practices they use to deliver value to you. See if you can spot similarities to agile practices you use to deliver to value to your clients.

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