How to get more from agile: The power of individuals and interactions

Do your agile results leave you wanting? Consider this advice on strengthening relationships, setting priorities, improving time management, and optimizing leadership
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Employees hanging notes on wall to represent agile methodologies

When the Agile Manifesto launched in 2001, no one could have predicted the huge impact it would have on every part of the software industry. The agile movement promised to deliver twice the value in half the time, gained huge momentum, and transformed working practices to the benefit of developers and customers.

However, while many agile projects succeeded, some failed. In fact, by 2015, some people declared that agile was dead. Today, some organizations feel disenchanted with agile: It’s easy to start and tough to scale.

The ability to define and deliver on a vision is the defining characteristic of successful leaders. Agile is the way to go for that.

I firmly believe that the Agile Manifesto remains at the heart of the best modern software development practices. At a time when digital transformation is key to the success of so many organizations, the ability to define and deliver on a vision is the defining characteristic of successful leaders. Agile is the way to go for that. So if you’re disenchanted, how do you get back on track?

Let me tell you a story about Pranay, a (fictional) software engineer. It’s a prequel to a story from my second book "I am a Software Engineer, and I am in Charge," which I wrote with leadership coach and digital marketer Michael Doyle.

When Pranay first got her software engineer role she was on top of the world. But after a few months, she began to really struggle in the job, as projects fell apart and her days seemed to consist of endless firefighting.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

How to build relationships in agile teams

Pranay realized that to accomplish anything of value she would need allies. Following the advice of agile coach Portia Tung in her book, "The Dream Team Nightmare," she employed a technique to better understand her colleagues’ strengths, wants, and needs.

The technique starts with an icebreaker, where each person asks the other three questions such as “If you could do anything other than your current job, what would it be?” or “How do you measure your success?”

You then share your work history that led to your current role, and ask about a specific aspect of the experience of the other people.

“If you could have three wishes for transforming your daily work and/or workplace, what would they be?

You end by asking, “If you could have three wishes for transforming your daily work and/or workplace, what would they be?” The answers you hear will teach you a lot about the organization and a lot about your teammates’ current mindset.

While it may seem daunting to introduce a practice like this, Pranay found an easy way in. She simply said to her teammate: “Hey, I found something that we could use to onboard the next newcomers in our team, would you want to try it with me?” And away they went.

Pranay, like all members of an agile team, needs to keep expanding her circles by getting to know others and building relationships.This brings us to the first key value of the Agile Manifesto: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

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Pinpoint what's important: Try Impact Mapping

To focus her energy on the things that would be truly important for her goals, Pranay also employed a strategic planning technique called Impact Mapping. Devised by software consultant Gojko Adjic, impact mapping helps teams stay on course while building products and delivering projects – by clearly communicating assumptions, aligning activities with overall business objectives, and making better roadmap decisions.

The approach has teams ask four key questions: Why are we doing this? Who can help us achieve it? How will they help us? And what will we do to support them?

This is a simple and effective way to define your goals and measure the impact you want to have, without knowing the “how” yet.

Pranay created her own Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). As she introduced her OKRs to her colleagues, she’d hear: “Hey, I know how to help you with that one.”

Those interactions helped her refine the impact map and create better OKRs. She did not sell her perspective, she improved her goal thanks to the diversity of perspectives in her team. As a result, her OKRs became team OKRs and they joined forces.

Great success will be achieved when you begin to work in this way. It will enable you to think about the outcome, and the impact of what you are trying to accomplish.

"Avoid the seduction of the task."

As author and Stanford lecturer Christina Wodtke told me in a recent episode of Le Podcast, “You’ve got to avoid the seduction of the task.”

An important note: This way of working does not have to start from the top. We have an advantage at Red Hat because our strategic framework follows the structure of OKRs, so we can define our own OKRs showing how we contribute to high-level company goals. We also have the advantage of Open Management Practices that help create conditions to foster individual initiative.

Once you have pinpointed what is most important, you can focus your time on those things.

How to get the most out of your time

Teams really need three types of time: synchronization, collaboration, and focalization. Synchronization time keeps everyone on the same page. This is time when team members share their progress, challenges, and learnings, so they stay aligned toward the same goal.

Collaboration time is when two or more people work together on a specific activity. This is key so that everyone benefits from different perspectives and instant feedback – especially during things like pair programming or even mob programming.

The third and final type of time is focalization, with no interruptions or notifications. This ensures you don’t waste any time switching context and can focus on one task. To ensure time for focalization, Pranay and her team assign a role of ‘catcher’ – a person tasked with dealing with any interruptions for the rest of the team during focus sessions.

To refine their use of time, Pranay and her team also devised a team agreement. They did this by using the six questions Patrick Lencioni proposes in his book "The Advantage."

1. Why do we exist?

2. How do we behave? (How we handle conflicts, for example. Or how we use shared documents to enable asynchronous collaboration.)

3. What do we do?

4. How will we succeed?

5. What is most important, right now? (A good impact map here is important. Prioritizing the impact is much easier than sorting an infinite list of ‘what’.

6. Who must do what? (This question addresses roles and responsibilities in order to avoid the issue of false expectations.)

In addition, they agreed to use the speedy meeting feature of Google Calendar and always leave five or ten minutes between meetings as breaks. Some of the team even use those breaks for short meditation sessions.

Pranay also discovered a significant need for time to celebrate team successes, and so they added that to their agreements.

And I hope you will too. Because as Pranay’s team did, this is how you increase your impact and satisfaction. It starts with you. Clear goals, and a smarter use of time as a team.

But where's Wally?

You may have noticed that Pranay’s manager is not mentioned in the story. Is the manager a lazy absentee or a brilliant genius? What do you think?

Is the manager a lazy absentee or a brilliant genius?

What we do know is that the manager understands how to let initiative happen in the team. Maybe the manager is encouraging, fostering initiative from behind the scenes. How can you better nurture that yourself?

In coaching or mentoring sessions, I use a graph that I call the four BEPS axes of a leader. (BEPS stands for business, execution, people, and system.) I aim to help people realize when they’re not investing in one or more of the axes. Ask yourself: Which of these axes deserves more of your attention?

The business part of the equation is the most important. It’s about understanding the business and the ecosystem your organization exists in, understanding why you provide solutions, products, features, and services, and formulating a clear vision. We should always start here.

Most people make the mistake of focusing on execution, though this is not usually the main problem. Many managers go deep on execution, particularly when they are defining precise tasks for each person. By going too deep, they forget the other axes.

People can be more of a problem. While people can make or break an agile team, hiring, retention, performance management, and self-improvement are often passively delegated to HR or other managers.

System is a big one – usually suffering from underinvestment. As American engineer W.E. Deming said, “a bad system will beat good people each time.” Understanding the system formed by the people, the organization, the processes, and tools, is of paramount importance and will help you to remove the obstacles to great work. It’s all too common to see layers of complexity piling up on top of each other.

Choose one thing to change, and see results

I hope you will consider picking at least one idea from the above to try. It could be the impact mapping, or the one-on-one getting to know each other game. It’s a good one; a colleague who tried that told me that after 30 minutes he felt like he was speaking to an old friend.

Make one small change today, and it might just help you and your team not only be more impactful in your agile work, but also get more satisfaction out of it.

[ Want Agile and DevOps best practices? Watch the on-demand webinar: Lessons from The Phoenix project you can use today. ]

Alexis Monville is a member of the EMEA Leadership Team at Red Hat. He brings more than 20 years of operations and management experience from diverse sectors such as the automotive industry, a dotcom startup, IT consulting, public sector, software development, and his own management and organization consulting and coaching firm.