Friday, March 20, 2015

Culture Change – An important ingredient for organizational Agility

To imbibe Agility in an organization which is a state of high responsiveness, speed, and adaptiveness organizations should promote a new organizational culture of openness, transparency, respect for people, constant learning, improving, and constant adaptation. Even with so much of awareness, cultural change seems to be one of the major hurdles impeding organization’s success.

Culture is more about “The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” When an individual behaves in a particular way, we associate that to be his nature, but when a team or an organization responds, we relate to its culture. As this is associated with people and their entrenched culture it is very difficult to change!! While it is also a very common observation that the culture within the same organization varies across various geographies. It’s not uncommon to hear statements like that’s the UK Culture, or the US Culture, or the Indian Culture, etc.

When a team/group of cross-functional individuals work together (co-exist and collaborate) for a long period of time in the same organization by respecting and following certain organizational values; they display a unique identity of that group forming their culture. And when we address the culture exhibited by all the teams in an organization it is referred to as the organization culture. If you observe carefully, culture is not the characteristic of one individual but of the team/organization as a whole.

I recollect one of my consulting experiences where I was hired as a coach in one of the organizations that had been practicing Agile for a while, but their adoption was stalled. Although from the outset they seemed to follow all the Agile best practices, they were still struggling with the deliveries and their team motivation was at a all time low. One of the first things I did was to probe the teams by facilitating Anonymous Retrospectives to generate insights. It was quite revealing to find that the organization had a “Culture of Fear”; fear of getting penalized for a decision going wrong, fear of failure to meet the commitments, fear of poor quality deliverable, fear to be completely honest and transparent, fear to challenge the status-quo, fear of lack of trust and respect among people, etc. This culture of fear in the organization did not allow Agile to penetrate beyond the surface. Once these insights were shared with the organization, they embraced and acknowledged the shortcomings and worked towards corrective practices to remove the fear thereby imbibing the “Culture of Agility” in the organization.

Organization culture contributes significantly towards successful Agile adoption and therefore understanding it is the key. Management, executives, and team members should support and embrace this change. Invest in a few prominent agility attributes like the healthy team dynamics of self-organization teams, continuous improvement, frequent delivery, effective communication, adapting to the changing environment, etc. that benefits an organization and its customers. To bring culture shift, organizations must examine its existing practices with a critical eye, try new way of doing things, create new opportunities, coupled with commitment and nurturing at all levels within an organization.

Organizations which have traversed through the Agile adoption culture change journey exhibit some of these characters:
  • Team members demonstrate values like Trust, Respect, Courage, Openness, Confidence, Synergy, Unity, Affiliation, and Commitment.
  • Creativity, Collaboration, Emergence, Rhythm, Empiricism, and Discovery are encouraged organization-wide.
  • Embracing Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation as part of everyday routine.

Embedding cultural shift involves a lot of patience, a full top-down support, constant learning, and a bottom-up intelligence. While an organization may follow all the bookish guidelines and yet fail in this journey if they cannot identify this subtle/invisible ingredient of “culture” which plays a substantial role. Focusing on the correct culture, eventually leads an organization towards success in this transformation path!! 

Monday, March 16, 2015

A scaled scrum tactic – Team of Teams, A real life example

A program team of over 40 people decided to move to Agile from their traditional development practices. The program was old and had been in existence for over 6 years. In these 6 years they had released multiple versions of their software product to their customers. In the rush to satisfy the customers they had ignored the basic hygiene of following the good engineering best practices. So, along with their move to Agile they had also inherited a considerably poorly maintained legacy code. There was tight coupling between the various software components in the entire system; The majority of  the code files had 10000+ lines of code with plenty of code duplication; there was poor technical documentation on how the overall system interacted; the entire testing effort was manual. There were certain components which when modified, in most instances, introduced regressions in the existing system.  Even though the teams spent significant time testing the entire end-to-end system, the overall confidence on the quality of the deliverable was considerably low.

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The program formed 4 cross-functional Scrum Teams and started sprinting. The dysfunctions from the poorly maintained legacy code started surfacing and becoming more evident.The teams struggled to meet their planned sprint forecast. The development team's time spent testing the new features was exponentially higher than it took to build those features. In addition, most of the times the development teams kept busy fixing unplanned production defects to maintain the business continuity. The deliveries of new business features were at an all time low which made the sponsors very anxious.

The scrum teams collaborated, brainstormed and came to a common conclusion that to accelerate product delivery, one of the first steps was to reduce the manual test effort spent by the development teams. They decided to write end-to-end automated service level tests to cut down the time teams spent on manual testing as well as to gain enough confidence in their deliveries. The product owner helped by ordering the PBIs for the service level automated tests higher in the product backlog.

The skill-sets required to develop the service level tests were spread across multiple scrum teams. Something different had to be thought of to overcome the above challenge without having a major impact on the business continuity.

A new scaled scrum tactic of “Team of Teams” was introduced: “Team of Teams” is a concept where members with the right skill-set from the existing scrum teams participate to form a new Scrum team for a short duration of a sprint or 2 to solve a very focused problem.

The 4 Scrum Teams self-organized and quickly identified 2 development engineers from each team with the correct skill-set to participate in the new “Team of Teams”. One of the Scrum Masters from the existing teams volunteered to help with Scrum Master duties for the newly formed Scrum team.

The new “Team of Teams” decided to operate in “Boot Camp” mode and they co-located themselves in a conference room to allow maximum collaboration. In the first few days of the sprint, the team carved out a homegrown test framework and added a couple of end-to-end tests to validate the framework. A quick review of the framework with the original 4 scrum teams and the Product owner validated their hypothesis. The newly formed team of teams worked through their sprint backlog and carved out 17 rich test scenarios in that sprint. The “Team of Teams” had accomplished their mission of writing sufficient automated test scenarios to reduce the manual testing effort thereby accelerating the product delivery. The team members from the newly formed team of teams then returned back to their original scrum team where they continued to build additional test scenarios.

Having led many Agile adoptions across multiple organizations, I have found scaling tactic like "team of teams" to be very helpful when a very focused problem has to be addressed.  The “Team of Teams” tactic has also been explored for strategizing the product vision and the product backlog refinement with multiple scrum teams and overall the outcome has been quite rewarding.

I would be happy to hear some scaling tactics you have used and learn from your experiences.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Is agility fueling organizations towards profitability?

Let me begin this blog by relating one of my travelogue experiences. A known taxi driver drives me in his car to the Mumbai airport every week from the last 4 years. The car is about 8 years old, poorly maintained, and has tugged a good more than 300000+ kilometers; has by all means attained end of life, good enough to be dumped, and reap benefits from its scrap. As an enduring passenger, I have been containing the noisy tractor-like ride in his car due to my acquaintance with him and also believing his long false promise of a new car on its way to replace this one!


Week-on-week he comes with the same car and asks me if I noticed any evident difference in terms of travel experience. He would spend good amount of money replacing the old parts (like the tires, cars’ engine, AC, etc.) with better ones, beautifying it by a coat of varnish, etc.; the expenditure now almost exceeding the price of purchasing a 3-year-old second hand car. I honestly said a big NO each time he asked me and also wondered why he was investing on this old car when a new car according to him was arriving in the next 3 months!! This fetish behavior of patching the old car in anticipation of some miracle resulted in the loss of many good loyal customers (as they were fed up of the continued bad bumpy ride with no respite in sight in the form of a new car).

During one of my recent rough ride in the taxi, I realized how well this experience was analogous to what many organizations undergo during their agile journey. They have every agile practice in place; right mindset, best practices, roles/ceremonies/artifacts well defined coupled with communication, motivation, and empowerment. Even with such a robust agile framework, the teams/organizations lack agility to adapt to the changing customer requirements and deliver in a fast paced manner. Although in reality, organizations want to go fast (like any new car) by adopting agile but unfortunately are stuck with poorly maintained legacy codebase (like the old taxi). Any amount of replacement, beautification, superficial modification, or adopting new methodology/technique without addressing the deep-rooted problems might temporarily mask the real problem thereby breaking ‘transparency’, one of the 3 legs of empiricism (for scrum to be effective, each of these 3 pillars – transparency, inspection, and adaptation must stand and be supported).


When such projects are assessed, in all probability the hidden truth is that the organizations carry a herculean technical debt in terms of complicated and poorly maintained legacy codebase (just like the old car) with little or no attention to the engineering best practices, poor feedback cycles, no automation of unit./integration/regression, poor re-factoring and code reviews, etc. Based on the assessment findings, organizations need to perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether it makes sense to fuel such projects and take appropriate corrective actions immediately rather than wait for some magic to happen overnight in an organization/product by just adopting agile. If not, (like the taxi driver) organizations will fail to deliver/meet customer expectations, not be profitable, and loose out longstanding clients.


Therefore, for organizations in their attempt to keep pace with the competitive world it is not just enough to adopt agile methodology but should imbibe agility in their DNA. Varnishing an old car may give it a new look but the driving experience will remain the same; the same applies to organizations as well. In most cases, change/expected results may not be visible by just refactoring in bits and pieces (replacing the defective parts) but it may call for a complete eradication of the existing system (significant remarkable/dramatic one which would be a winning selling pitch for the organization; in the car analogy it is like buying a new car) and re-designing/re-writing the software to bring in a new vibrant spectrum.


Upon this cleanup and novel thought it is now time to think how to drive this concept (new car) effectively and efficiently! Adopting the rich agile methodology along with adhering to solid engineering practices at this juncture would act as a fuel to propel the team/project/product/organization, accelerate, and drive towards success!


With the legacy issues addressed and best engineering techniques embraced, agile adoption certainly triggers agility and benefits the organization by delivering fast-paced, feature-rich, competitive, and user-beneficial products of significant business value!