sail boat on smooth water under blue skies
PHOTO: Flying Carpet

Agile. A magical panacea for running a project or a program. You’ll notice I didn’t say “managing” because that runs contrary to people’s beliefs about how agile works. When it works well, you are responsive to your clients and better serve everyone. When it's run poorly, agile is merely a better brand of anarchy.

When adopting agile for use in your digital world, think of it like sailing a boat on the open water: you are constantly making minor adjustments to get to your destination. This is true regardless of your agile methodology. You have to manage and guide things in order to get the maximum benefit from an agile approach.

Constant Course Adjustments

Agile's greatest benefit derives from these continual adjustments. The “project plan” isn’t a step-by-step guide on how to show results in six months, it is a prioritized list (backlog) of activities (e.g. stories) that need to be completed. They are reprioritized on a regular basis to ensure they reflect current reality. This way, what is most important today, and not last week, is done next.

This means if the wind shifts or you learn you’re heading in the wrong direction, you can adjust. You may need to make that starboard tack now, launching that new campaign today instead of next week. Items keep getting pushed down in the backlog in favor of new tasks. Maybe you decide to delete them entirely from the backlog. Do you really need those lightning bolts on the side of the boat?

If all goes well, your team is productive and responsive. It doesn’t matter if you are managing a digital presence, a program or developing software. The most important tasks are being done everyday and everyone is aware of what is happening at all times.

At times like this, you are cruising across the ocean. On the other hand ….

Related Article: Agile, Kanban & Scrum, Oh My: Which Product Management Method Is Right For You?

When Agile Turns Into Organized Chaos

Let’s consider the meetings that are intrinsic to the agile process. Even non-agile teams have adopted the daily standup model. These sessions — both scheduled and ad-hoc — handle backlog grooming to keep the backlog well-defined, include demonstrations and planning to make sure everyone knows what is being delivered and what needs to come next.

However, when things become rushed, the pushback comes. This is especially true in environments where the team is actively supporting external organizations. The cause doesn't matter — something happens and a deadline looms. Unexpected squalls are part of business. Dealing with the issue becomes the top priority and it needs to be done now.

And so you reschedule the next meeting. How easy this is depends on the schedule complexity of those outside of the team. It may be cancelled in favor of ad-hoc discussions during the next week to pull everything together.

When this happens once, it isn’t an issue. Things happen. However, if it happens repeatedly, the urgent deadlines become self-inflicted. Things that should have been moved to the top of the backlog are neglected until it is too late. And then the cycle repeats.

You’ve gone from working agilely to firefighting.

Related Article: Agile Helps Drive Digital Transformation Forward

Agile Needs Someone to Keep the Course

Agile is not lack of process. It is a lightweight process. Instead of endless documentation and rigid definitions of what has to be done, it shifts with the wind as the world changes. However, agile requires more discipline.

You have to track the shifting wind and make sure everyone is working off of the latest forecast. Everyone needs to know what everyone is doing at any given time so you know what needs to be adjusted when the winds shift. Every story needs to be small and discreet. This makes it possible for people to complete tasks quickly, leaving time for adjustments after stories end and not by moving work from in-progress to the backlog. That just wastes mind-power.

Agile success requires a navigator. They keep site of the goals and constantly check the weather. They know the multiple demands and can help shift things as the weather changes. They may not be the captain, but they keep things moving. The scrum agile methodology calls this role a “scrum master,” but it is a critical role in every agile approach. They may be doing work as well, but their first job is keeping people on course.

Related Article: How to Build a Sustainable Agile Culture

Smooth Sailing Ahead

As with any methodology for getting things done, the more experienced the team is at doing things correctly, the less “management” is actually required. An experienced crew senses what needs to be done and starts work on it after a brief check with crewmates. They are self-organizing and just need a little guidance.

A well-functioning team is a wonderful thing. When everyone can focus on what to deliver next instead of struggling to respond to the latest storm, production increases. With the help of a good navigator, your team can hit that level of effectiveness and reach your destination.

Just chart the course, check the weather and set the sails. You’ll get there.