Back to Basics: Use the Heart of Agile to Frame Your Agile Adoption

Somewhere along the way, agile implementations have gotten overblown and unwieldy. Managers and leaders look at all the models and frameworks and think agile adoption is too confusing or not worth the effort. To communicate what agile truly means, we have to simplify the message by getting to the heart of agile: collaborate, deliver, reflect, and improve.

As an agile coach, I help establish the framework and services to create a more unifying and consistent approach to agile adoption. Agile is about freeing up systems in order to respond to change in our dynamic, complex world, and the movement has been growing organically for years, gaining traction and interest at all levels.

But in some traditional holdouts, the idea of transitioning to agile has become a divergent and confusing undertaking. I’ve even heard some managers, executives, and C-level members say they “don't want to hear about agile again”—which, given the complexity of the environment they operate in, is very concerning.

Rather than repeating our objectives, this should be a call to action for us to revisit how we describe adopting agility. A message is not effective unless it is understood, and evidently, the agile message is not being understood.

Explain What Agile Really Means

Practitioners who are actually creating the product and getting stuff done in teams understand what agile is about. They are close to the work and are describing how they want to work. Many of our business friends, and more senior folk who have moved from doing to directing, are overwhelmed or have become uncertain due to the plethora of frameworks and models being introduced. We need to engage the managers.

A single business sponsor who wants a change and is funding it might have to deal with multiple agile delivery models in the company: SAFe, Scrum, kanban, etc. The intersections of these various approaches and the breakup of work can create issues in completing delivery. This manifests in misaligned cadences affecting timelines, missed dependencies causing rework and delay, and an inability to create single missions for teams to align to.

And often there are multiple agile consultants being engaged, each bringing or establishing its own agile playbook for implementation, to add to the noise. Even though they declare that they believe in the people element of agile, with self-organizing teams and an empowered culture, they are trying to control how the adoption process happens.

We do not want to stop people from hypothesizing, experimenting, testing, or learning. Yet at this scale, the divergence of practices and forms creates a problem for the management team. When executives hear alternative messages, they think the transition to agile is full of misdirection, waste, and overhead and view it as unproductive.

How do we create a common, clear, effective message to anchor teams and gain support, without crushing the green shoots of revolution that we want and need to foster?

The Heart of Agile

Alistair Cockburn, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, realized that some agile implementations were getting overblown and too unwieldy. He created a model to encourage everyone to get back to what agile is about at its most basic, and he called it the heart of agile.

The heart of agile immediately resonated as a way of cutting through the rhetoric and the confusion that surrounds agility and what that means today. The model has four quadrants:

  • Collaborate
  • Deliver
  • Reflect
  • Improve

Each quadrant then unpacks into more complex and granular guidance as you continue your agile journey. You adopt as much as you want, where you want, but you always retain the four main objectives. I realized that this model could be used as a simplifying conversation and an agile framework at all levels of an organization.

The goal should be to create an environment for teams to be able to ask themselves four things:

  1. How do we improve collaboration and shorten the distance ideas need to travel?
  2. How do we deliver more frequently?
  3. How do we ensure we take the time to reflect?
  4. How do we embed continuous improvement into our culture?

The concepts in the heart of agile are applicable to any scenario and any team at any level, without causing a major, disruptive change. This model will work as a tool in any agile framework: Start with it as your anchor, then let methods, practices, and processes evolve from there.

That's important, because how a company changes is critical. I'm not a fan of the massive, well-funded, multiyear organizational transformations—maybe because I haven't seen one truly succeed yet. I'm more inclined to believe that the smaller, gradual, kaizen-style changes are more effective and sustaining.

Solve Problems and Get Everyone’s Support

Even though focusing on the heart of agile should help simplify your agile adoption, as with any change, you will probably encounter some challenges along the way.

One of the common stumbling blocks is building in the importance of taking time to reflect and improve. There is still a well-held concept in some management circles that people should be 100 percent efficient. They don’t give employees the time to pause and think about what could be done better. Yes, everyone is busy, and there’s always work to be done, but there is value in retrospectives. In the long run, they help us become more productive.

I’ve also seen people struggling with some apparently innate need for elaborate plans and guides. It seems like the more complex the offering (or agile framework), the more acceptance it gets at the leadership level. To get past the need for playbooks, put together some light-touch practices that directly link to the heart of agile and roll those out. Teams will have something to take away and try immediately, and leaders get a sense of structure.

Speaking of that, it’s important for managers and leaders to understand that although this is not a command-and-control environment, their support is essential. Their main jobs in this move toward agility are to help people collaborate better, encourage and support the free flow of information, and allow decision-making to move closer to the work. They also should help identify and remove waste in the system by talking to those who do the work and finding ways to create a leaner process.

Use the four quadrants of the heart of agile to have simplified, clarified conversations with senior leaders and executives in order to get their buy-in. Teams can shift only so much on their own; to truly gain ground in the move to agility, we need everyone on board. The heart of agile is the tool to do it.

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