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Moving From a Six – Continuous improvement Within Agile Frameworks

Updated: May 30, 2019

By: Darren Callahan

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a few company presidents about Scrum Maturity – great conversations that helped put some perspective into how far Breakthrough Technologies has come in our journey towards being a strong, Agile service provider.  

There are many ways to organize and deliver your work.  BT doesn’t chase the flavor of the month, and neither do other dependable companies.  We are innovative and exploratory, but there’s something very satisfying about consistent delivery – delivery that is capable of adapting to change of ideas, change in the market and change in schedule.  That’s what drew our company and our peers to Agile frameworks, such as Scrum and Kanban.  

We began to really invest in Agile frameworks in mid-2012, and we’ve accomplished so much in the last four years.  The value of Agile in software development is a long-established idea. Using frameworks such as Scrum and Kanban, we were able to break from older systems, such as Waterfall (still in use, still valuable, but less dominant).  The focus on business value and incremental delivery helps BT and our client partners realize faster time to market, better use of resources, and higher value delivery.

But, after four years, aren’t we done yet? No.  As our company has grown, we’ve on-boarded waves of talent that have either differing approaches or no knowledge of these frameworks.   On a scale of one to 10 (a one being we know nothing of Agile and its practices, a ten being we have 100% mastered everything), BT has spent a year stuck at around six.   

Validated by our peer organizations or service organizations, such as the Agile Alliance or the Scrum Alliance, this is common.  To “turn” to Agile quickly, with vision, leadership, training, and results can (sometimes) make the change seem easy.  All you need are the fundamentals and the willpower.  Before you know it – one, two, and three are all in the rear-view mirror.  

Then, comes the middle – also known as the muddle… 

A year or more of slugging through a ranking of four, a five, then a six.  

But how to move from a six to a seven is a place where many organizations fail.  How well do we really use Agile principals?  Have we slid into past (bad) habits around making large plans, that we-must-know-everything-before-we-do-anything paralysis?  Standing strong for value delivery rather than fixed scope, fixed cost delivery.  Do we work together as a team – an independent, self-organizing unit bent on delivery – or are we just a collection of heroes and losers?     

BT found success in a number of strategies, such as:

Continuously Train and Certify

The more involved we can be within the Agile community, the more likely our teams are to understand the advantages, be aware of cutting-edge tuning, and have resources to solve problems.

Contract for Agile Success

Our clients don’t always come to the table knowing that iterative development is a smart, powerful delivery system.  In fact, they may seem a little put-off by anything related to Scrum or usability testing, or job titles like Scrum Master or Product Owner.  Our clients may not want to be deeply involved in our methods, either; they only want the results.  But we found that our teams are able to better thrive if the scope of work is defined not through fixed scope, fixed price, fixed time, but instead through the delivery of business value.  We’ve brought into the pre-sales process some tried and true ideas – such as Story Maps.  Earlier in the process, these help keep teams and clients focused on product visions and product strategies that return results.  It’s easy to say, “Agile is great – we get to change our minds all the time.”  It’s harder to stay disciplined.  “We are on this journey for a vision, for a reason; our choices must always be informed by that true north.”  The definition of this true north begins with a healthy, Agile contract, with “just enough” to guide the vision of the product.  Something the teams can understand and fulfill.    

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Agile Coaching, even if it comes from outside our own workforce, is a great clarifier.  We become too invested in the moment, too numb to change, too fearful of disruption.  Having an outsider come and observe, guide, or just plain bully us into continuous improvement has been a great benefit.  If our experiences become too narrow, the less likely we are to (effectively) serve our clients.  

And, ultimately, that’s what this is about.  The method is like the frame of a movie screen.  It’s what’s on the screen that’s important.  But knowing that screen is there can help keep everything in focus.  

We’re well on our way to seven, to eight, and beyond…

Darren Callahan Vice-President Solutions Breakthrough Technologies

Recommended reading:

The Elements of Scrum by Chris Sims and Hillary Louise Johnson

Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives: A Toolbox of Retrospective Exercises

by Louis Goncalves and Ben Linders

Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen

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