If Nothing Else Works, Let’s be Agile!

illustration by Stubbornsketcher

Does the title ring a bell? This is not a story of agile transformation. This is a personal encounter with the legacy world out there, a story of how we perceive Agile in a world where our personal agendas clash with the world of technology that positively change our lives.

How many times have you heard colleagues, friends, managers make this announcement: we are going to do agile! or we are going agile! or something similar? I have heard it many times. So many times that it has started to annoy me to the point that I don’t want to listen or ask them questions anymore. I instinctively shut down to sudden announcements loaded with trendy words (are they still trendy?) like agile, scrum, data-driven or OKRs, especially when these individuals have never really come close to working in an agile organization or an agile team.

I know, I know, you will say that any beginning is good. That anything is better than command and control management, useless documentation and pointless busy work that leads to nowhere. But when I used to ask these people why they wanted to be agile in the first place, I got something like:

  1. I am tired of doing my old job. I want something new. I heard agile is good and there are more prospects for me there.

I agree, agile is lucrative. Some people believe that it pays well to talk the agile talk and this often goes hand-in-hand with promotions, budgets, new positions (interestingly enough, agile should create less ‘positions’ and work better in flat hierarchies). I often wondered myself why some (a small number) Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches have such high paying jobs in some organizations, so I understand why it is attractive to go in that direction. But I am here to bust some myths, which, with time, proved to be mostly false.

Agile is hard. It is hard work, it is not just a better paid role in an organization, it is a role that requires a lot, if done right.

Wherever you are in your agile journey, be it engineering, HR, design, you name it, working in an agile organization is not all pink daisies. It requires full transparency, openness and courage. And I do not mean these words as another bla-bla talk which you have heard often in your legacy organization, I mean the real thing. It will mean that your role will have to be just as transparent as any other in the company. What you do and how you do it will be visible for everyone and you will be accountable for your actions, because ownership and accountability are the backbone of an agile individual. Do you have the courage to drive topics that will sometimes challenge the process, the leadership or company-wide decisions? If you are up for shaking the system and challenging the status-quo (and sometimes losing your job for doing so), then you might have a chance in the agile world. But be prepared to sacrifice your own private agenda for the good of the company. If you are just looking for a buzzword job and do not plan to rethink your entire existence, then stay put. You are not yet (and you might never be) ready to embrace true agile values.

While some agile practitioners get paid well, they do so because they are good at what they do. Most scrum masters and agile coaches do not make much more money than the average salaries in the area where they live, though. If you are working in an agile software company in a different role than that of a scrum master or an agile coach, the agile mindset will be implicitly bound to your role. If you are good and efficient at what you do in your role, you will succeed. That is to say, just because you talk the agile talk does not guarantee you better paid jobs. You have to prove that you are good at what you do. Legacy organizations might promote people who can sell themselves well and know how to use buzz words, but let’s face it, that means getting promoted for anything else than your agile mindset.

2. As a leader, I do not know how to make my team perform faster, so that it looks like my work is complete.

You will probably never say it in these words. But what you will probably say is something that you have learned by reading a few books and then concluding that Scrum is the best way to achieve faster time to market. Think again. While it is true that Scrum is a framework fit for faster iteration, it does not mean that you are ready to release those features into the world. You need to look at your entire organization and what you intend to achieve with Scrum (if it fits at all your business model). I have been in organizations where Scrum still did not help bring features out there, simply because there were too many factors that prevented that (see team dependencies, a heavy-weight technical debt backlog, unfit architecture and so on).

If you start granularly, at team level, without looking at the whole system and at your dependencies, you are setting up a team for failure, not success.

Unfortunately, many leaders seek to update their CV with magic words that sound good but never really amount to anything in practice. While an agile transformation sounds like the way to go to attract new talents, it might plunge the whole organization into a chaotic dance that does not turn anything into ‘more agile’. What’s worse is that people will learn to hate the buzzword and avoid the whole topic of agile or fight it with sarcasm and resistance. Any real attempt at agility will later on meet skepticism and disbelief, making the work of agile coaches twice as hard.

3. We are also ‘doing’ agile, we have now daily stand-ups and use Jira.

This makes me feel sick to my stomach. At the same time, I empathize with the people who tell me that, giving me an immediate glimpse into what they call ‘agile’. While having more alignment and more transparency is also the aim of adopting an agile mindset, it does not mean that a tool or a new meeting will instantly provide it. The bad news for you is that these meetings / tools are often misused and become a documentation/tracking system for the manager, giving them another angle of micromanagement that is hidden under the agile buzzword. If the values behind adopting these practices and tools are understood right, I agree that more transparency and alignment can be achieved. From here to agility, though, there is a long road and there are many questions that need to be answered.

Don’t fool yourself to call your team agile, but call them more ‘aligned’ or more open to learning from each other. This can be the base for agility.

The work of an agilist is complex and covers many aspects, from driving cultural topics, supporting software architecture and high-performance teams to changing mindsets. And if you have ever worked with people, then you know how slowly change happens and what it takes to bring change within an organization. Be ready to have your entire world turned upside down, your beliefs challenged and be prepared for personal and professional transformation. Agile is not about making more money or having better prospects, so do not fool yourself to believe that it is easy. While this article is not meant to discourage people from pursuing a better way of working, it is meant to challenge the ones who come into this world for the wrong reasons and to make them ask themselves: If I change my role to a role that is driven by an agile mindset, how will I make this world a better place?

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