Many IT shops are using agile methodologies in some format, whether they call it “capital A Agile,” DevOps, or lean principles. But what truly transformative companies are doing differently is applying an agile mindset to the broader organization and business – versus keeping it in a small subset of the IT team alone. That scaling up process trips up many agile efforts.
[ Learn how companies like AT&T, Walmart, and Toyota use agile methods wherever possible in the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report “Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership” ]
Scaling agile takes discipline, says Jeff Shurts, executive vice president, core for SPR.
“Learning agile isn’t like much of the learning we have to do as software professionals,” says Shurts. “Much of our traditional learning comes in bursts, meaning you pick up a new tool or new language, get through the heavy stuff as quickly as possible and move on. Agile is different: you’re doing all the same things you used to do, but with twists that are sometimes subtle and other times significant.”
“Successfully transitioning to agile is largely about forming and adhering to new, beneficial habits. Though the word doesn’t come up a lot when discussing agile, it really comes down to discipline. And discipline only comes with time and plenty of support,” he says.
Some of this support comes by way of unique traditions, inside jokes, and special rituals that develop as agile becomes part of the culture within an organization. These attributes make agile meaningful for everyone involved and help unite teams around the common goals of speed, efficiency, and collaboration.
We asked seven technology leaders to share the agile traditions that are unique to their organizations. If you are having a tough time scaling agile practices throughout the business, try borrowing a few of these unique ideas. It may not be too long before more people get on board.
1. Lighten up
Shannon Mason, VP of product management for CA Agile Central, CA Technologies: “Over the last nearly two decades, we’ve created some rituals that are heavily woven into our CA Agile Central identity:
- Themed Quarterly Big Room Planning (BRP). This past quarter we hosted a ‘Luau’-themed quarterly planning session (and in the past have hosted Big Lebowski BRP, 80’s BRP, etc.). As much as it’s about laughing together, we do this for another important reason: planning is not always sexy, and often it's the place where we have to make hard decisions and surface and collectively address issues. These themes remind us that we can do great work but still have fun doing it.
- ‘Old Man Walks.’ Based on the premise that walking/movement helps with problem-solving when you’re stuck, going for an ‘Old Man Walk’ with a person or team helps people in a group solve problems.
- ‘The Wheel of Chomp.’ We have a tradition of ending our meetings with one single clap – the style of which is chosen by a spin of the wheel. Much like costumes at BRP, this activity serves two functions: it’s an inside joke that unites us as a team, but we also always end up laughing at how bad we are at clapping at the same time. It lightens the mood, regardless of meeting content.”
2. Live by a motto
Keith Nottonson, senior director of development, Optimizely: “We like to inject creativity into our development cycle. An effective and fun thing we did was have our teams comprised of designers, engineers, and product people come together and design their own patches. Each team picked an animal and a motto that embodied their team’s mission. We made these into patches that we ironed onto Optimizely jackets.
Another memorable and easily accessible agile method is our weekly wall walk. Every Monday, 30 people gather in front of a 50-foot wall that shows our work in flight from ideas and experiments through beta and rollouts. Sure, all this information lives in electronic format where it is kept up to date; however, the physical representation of this work brings it to life and the people together.”
3. Get physical
Rotem Kaner, engineering programs and operations manager, Perfecto: “To mature the overall DevOps processes, and continuously improve, Perfecto engineering leadership initiated ‘monthly service health reviews.’ In these sessions, we review and investigate the overall health per each production service. The factors/KPIs that are looked at include service stability, quality, usage trends, operability, and cost analysis
We care for our service health, but not less than our developer’s health. Our scrum teams are doing their daily standup meetings every day at 11:30 a.m. Then they all join in a daily plank challenge lead by one of the developers.”
4. Think tunes and tacos
Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: "There are some serious and not-so-serious traditions at Datical that enforce agile. The first tradition is Steve Donie, our most fervent agile enforcer, playing Bob Marley's ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ when it's time for our daily standup. Other traditions are rather pedestrian, such as our naming conventions, which are just numeric. However, there is a tradition in Austin, Texas to bring in breakfast tacos the day after you break the build. After all, any other breakfast foodstuff is sub-optimal.
Agile is not just for development and IT. We use it for things non-development like sales enablement materials. For example, we may have a sales leader who has to answer a specific customer question. We will draft that sales leader to be our ‘customer.’ Product, marketing, and others are then tasked with satisfying the sales leader's needs. We do a quick spike and generate an outline with key data and run it by the ‘customer.’ Once we get feedback, we go in for the second sprint and produce the material. We continue to iterate over it again and again until we get it right, constantly broadening our definition of ‘customer’ until we get to the actual customer.
Agile is the best way for a business to balance constantly changing customer demands and the need to consistently show progress that benefits the customer. It's applicable to all parts of the business and well worth the effort to implement agile early and often. As Bob Marley teaches us: ‘Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight.’ It's worth it.”
[ Do you know a DevOps pretender when you see them? Read How to spot a DevOps faker. ]
5. Get into character
Timothy Wenhold, CIO and partner, Power Home Remodeling: “Although our teams work in one to two-week sprints, these sprints are part of a two-year ‘Tour of Duty,’ which allow each of them to focus on one business area for two years, mastering the skills and intimately learning that part of the business, before moving onto a completely new challenge. We also host three week-long events each year that allow the entire team to have exposure to the business, including a collaborative hackathon solving a real business challenge.
Finally, to keep the sense of curiosity, innovation, and just plain fun alive throughout our work, I’ve learned how to apply my lifelong love for comic books to my management style and team. As an homage to my greatest industry role model, my team often refers to me as ‘Batman,’ and they’re all divided into development groups that take on names from the comic book and sci-fi genre, including The Defenders and The Titans.”
6. Defy geography
Jamie Bolseth, president, MentorMate: “One of the original principles of agile development states that face-to-face communication is the most effective way to communicate. While it's difficult to disagree with this sentiment, the reality for our company is that we have seven offices spread out across the United States and Europe. Add to this the fact that our clients inherently add at least one additional physical location to the equation, and it's not uncommon for us to have a development team spread across three or more locations, making face-to face-communication a luxury that we can rarely take advantage of.
We've worked hard to make sure that we are as effective at communicating via various channels as possible. Key to this is to make sure the individual teams feel responsible for being excellent at communication and giving them some freedom in choosing what tools work best for them. Some teams tend to prefer more formal video conferencing solutions with scheduled meetings, while others prefer more ad hoc communication tools like group chats and impromptu video chats or screen sharing sessions. The point is to be thoughtful about how to facilitate remote communication, and to ensure the team has a say in how they accomplish the goal of effective communication."
7. Be a show-off
Tyler Koblasa, CEO, CloudApp: “For us, there is no agile without Kanban. The unique feature of Kanban is its ability to help your team visualize where new and old projects are all at once while also being set up in a way to feel more fluid. As you complete something, you move it visually to the next part of the board, allowing you to see your progress. So many tools trap you in complex, ugly, and frustratingly difficult UI/UX that don’t let you enjoy the process of progressing in your efforts. Kanban helps you feel like you’re making moves, and every time you pass your completed work from one step to another, you feel the success and momentum of that.
Demonstrations every week or two allow the development team to show off their hard work and let the company know what is coming in following releases. Demo Fridays also help keep everybody focused on their deliverables and give gives us an opportunity to celebrate the achievements. This is both fun and exciting, and it’s also very informative. It gives other cross-functional teams a glimpse into the workings of the broader organization and allows, for example, the marketing team to become aware of a new feature that’s close to production that needs to be marketed and highlighted.”
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