two people jumping in front of a green wall
PHOTO: Jared Sluyter

Agile efforts face a number of common challenges which, if disregarded, can derail your efforts and reduce any intended benefits.

Organizations can improve their agile efforts by focusing on five common challenges:

  1. Support and protect agile values with strong leadership.
  2. Help teams and stakeholders to self-organize.
  3. Manage your portfolio with outcomes, not outputs.
  4. Systematically remove sources of waste and delay agile teams face.
  5. Measure and improve value delivered with frequent feedback.

1. Support and Protect Agile Values With Strong Leadership

Too often people consider themselves leaders due to title or experience, even if they aren’t perceived as such by those they think they are leading. At the same time, many leaders lead without even realizing it. They become leaders due to their capabilities, their knowledge and the respect they earn. To succeed, both those in the position of leadership and those who are viewed as leaders need to come together and embrace agility. They need to empower their teams, support them in their efforts and be the spokespeople of change.  

Why Seek Agility?

If an organization is going to survive today, it must evolve and do so quickly, with agility. What is driving this push? Is it customers? Competitors? The board or management? Hopefully it goes beyond the boardroom and you feel like you need to evolve for your organization to survive.

Part of this involves a change in mindset. Stop looking at threats so negatively. Threats are opportunities to grow, often forcing us to think and expand. Too often people get defensive when a threat comes up. Instead, look at how you can change, what you can do differently and how your organization can change, not just to challenge the threat, but to bypass the threat altogether and evolve.

The ability for your culture to change often makes the difference — and that is difficult to impact. Too often, culture change is given lip service rather than enabling the change.

“People don't resist change. They resist being changed” — Peter M. Senge

Change needs to come from the top, but not always. Sometimes the fear of the unknown — not knowing how to change — prevents it from taking hold. Leadership fails to empower change or even change themselves. In addition, budget cycles remain unchanged, requirements are still all captured up front, and deadlines are commitments and therefore go unchanged. Change is good and often welcome, but changing is very hard.

What Shapes Culture?

Leaders have to provide the ability to change. They must empower individuals and set them up for success. It is an evolution from an individual mindset to one of teaming and collaboration. How do people work together to solve problems? For the most part, people like to work with others, succeeding or failing together, sharing, learning, growing together.

Leaders should help define shared goals. Providing an environment where people feel safe to ask questions, be different and work differently. Leaders are the model for that change. All of this is hard, but if evolution is going to happen once again (repeat it with me), “It must start at with leaders.”

Related Article: 3 Tips for Embedding Change in Your Team Culture

2. Help Teams and Stakeholders Self-Organize

You can find many analogies about hierarchal structure and why everyone along the chain needs to be empowered with decision making capabilities. I have read many examples from the military and other areas, but let’s take an even simpler one. 

I have been playing baseball for more than 40 years, so I may be biased, but I think this is a great example. Hierarchy is needed on a professional sports team. The team needs an owner (CEO). Everyone can't make hiring decisions about players, so a general manager makes sense. Someone needs to run the team, otherwise everyone would want to play all of the time, so they need a manager. Base runners don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, so they need base coaches. Players are required, and so on. 

However, when a base runner is rounding second base, the third base coach cannot look to the manager who looks to the general manager who looks to the owner to decide if they should send the runner home. They have to make that decision on the fly based on the knowledge and training they have available there and then. They may make the wrong decision, but will spend time later learning from it and improving their decision making for the next time it occurs. 

Similarly, a catcher cannot look to that same hierarchy on every pitch to see what to call. And they shouldn’t. They are closest to the situation and see better than anyone else what pitches are working, what ones aren’t working and what that batter is doing in the box. Therefore, they are empowered to make the decision. Of course, the pitching coach may know a specific batter swings and misses 90 percent of the time at low curve balls, so they communicate that down to the catcher so they can use this knowledge. 

Clearly the catcher or third base coach shouldn't make hiring decisions, contract negotiations or decisions about the food in the stands. But they must be empowered from above to make decisions that apply to their role, without fear of being second guessed. They can then learn from the results of that decision and evolve their thinking for future decisions as a team.

That is a long analogy, but it can apply to any business and how people work. The people closest to the problem often have the best solutions if they are empowered to make them. 

Here is an analogy from a different perspective. A neighbor of mine worked on a car manufacturing line almost 20 years ago. Many times he would say, “I can stop the line.” Could he design a car? No. Could he decide to stop long-term production? No. But if he identified an issue, he could make sure everyone took a step back and thought before moving forward. And that empowerment made him like his job that much more, to the point where he bragged to his neighbor about being able to “stop the line.” 

Hierarchy is needed. Leadership is needed. Mentors are needed. Leaders can help people grow. But people also need to be empowered to do things on their own and in teams.

To Become Agile, Invert the Organization

Organizations really need to start turning the way they look at things upside down. The traditional organization has customers or users as their base with the executives on top and working their way down. An agile organization puts customers at the top, driving how they work and what they deliver — because if they deliver value to the customer, they will add value to the organization. I look at it more like a circle with the customer in the middle, but you get the idea. The agile organization must focus on delivering value and validating that value, which will satisfy the executives and board.

Self-organization should be encouraged. Stakeholders respect it, product owners enable it, scrum masters support it and the development team does it. The hierarchical organization doesn’t have to go away, it has to learn to support the agile environment. 

Related Article: 5 Great Things About Hierarchies

3. Manage Your Portfolio With Outcomes (Not Output)

Portfolio management isn’t just about measuring how much is delivered. Instead, it should be measured on the value of what is being delivered. Learn. Empiricism is based on learning, improving, learning, improving, rinse and repeat. That is how we improve outcomes. 

The graphic below shows the three quadrants teams often work in: features that make things worse; features that don’t improve or hurt things, but don’t help either; and those that improve outcomes. As organizations shift to focus more on improvement, they become more agile. 

exp platform
Source: Online controlled experiments and A/B tests

An outcome is some state experienced by the user of a product. It can be an internal or an external user, but at the end of the day it is something they can experience, provide feedback on so that it can be improved and adds some value to both the user and the organization that delivered it.

Work to Close the Gap

Let’s focus on who the features are being delivered for, the “persona” if you will. The actual people represented by the persona have a desired outcome from what you are delivering, and they are currently trying to accomplish something. That gap between what they are currently doing and what they would like to do or how they would like to do it is the satisfaction gap or opportunity. The value delivered is by closing the gap where the user gets closer and closer to their desired outcome. In many cases, the more you deliver, the more they will want. Their desired outcome will change, but that is ok. It gives us more value that can be delivered to satisfy the user and if in a commercial world, sell more capabilities or products.

Beware the “HiPPOs.” The Highly Paid Person’s Opinions may be valuable, but not the only opinion that matters, even if they think it is. I have worked for several executives and CEOs who have what I call “happy ears.” They make decisions based on the latest meeting with a prospect or customer or analyst. Generally, this is with little to no analysis or thought, and it changes with the latest meeting. Be sure to weigh that input with the rest of the value that can be added for users and potential users, and not change direction based on a single opinion or thought.

Related Article: Use Failure to Drive Product Growth

4. Systematically Remove Sources of Waste and Delay

Team growth is needed, and leaders need to support it. It can be done systematically by removing sources of waste and delay that the teams may face. 

Cross-team dependencies reduce delivery capability and the more dependencies across teams, the more impact that has on delivery. If you can reduce those dependencies, you can deliver more seamlessly. 

Breaking product backlog items up by teams who can deliver them independently as best as possible will not only allow you to deliver more, but also more effectively and quickly to completion. Refinement becomes critical here, refining product backlog items so that you can determine where dependencies may lie or where items can be spread around.

Related Article: How to Use Agile to Improve Team Performance

5. Measure and Improve Value Delivered with Frequent Feedback

At the heart of agile is continuous inspection and adaption of how work is done and what work is done. You cannot accomplish this if you don’t measure and improve the value being delivered. I hate the concept of velocity, because delivering more of the wrong thing may be helpful if you learn from it, but speed alone isn’t the desired result. You want to deliver value, measure that value and improve on what is being delivered. 

Related Article: How to Ensure Your Product Roadmap Embraces Facts, Not Fallacy

Build the Right Thing

Someone has an idea. Maybe it is the product owner, maybe the customer told them, maybe the CEO. It doesn’t matter where the idea came from, what matters is that you validate it as valuable. The product owner takes that idea and drives it to the customer, working with the development team who delivers it. They take the feedback and so on. Start the loop and keep it going.

Proving the idea requires that it is expressed in a way so that people can understand the hypothesis of the idea. They believe that this feature for these customers will achieve something. They will know that this is true when they measure and it has changed. The below graphic is one way to express a potential feature:

lean ux
Adapted from Gothelf and Seiden: Lean UX

Use these outcomes to plan your sprints. It starts with the sprint goal. The outcome is that goal. The product owner works with the development team to understand the goal so that they can pick the right product backlog items (PBIs) to achieve it. 

Use those outcomes to focus in sprint reviews. As teams deliver, review based on that sprint goal and the desired outcomes. Share with stakeholders and ask the question, “What were the results and what did we learn?” With this, the team moves things forward, continuing to learn, inspecting and adapting along the way, always.