Sunday, August 17, 2014

Agile Executive Playbook

Imagine that you are an executive of a company (and quite possibly some of you reading this are or have a direct line to an executive).  You’ve heard about this thing called Agile and some of you have experienced it.  However, Agile is still a bit confusing because in many cases, it appears to be occurring only at the development team level and can occur in many different ways.  Some of you believe that Agile is a set of practices and tools and may be surprised to know that it is nothing-more-and-nothing-less than a set of values and principles.   Maybe some of you haven’t seen the connection between applying Agile and gaining the business benefits.  What exactly is your role and responsibilities in moving your company toward Agile?  Here is guidance on what you may do to support Agile and more importantly increase your chances of deriving the business benefits of Agile. 

Strategic Shifts           
The key responsibility for the executive within the organizational scope is to become the sponsor of the Agile initiative.  This highlights to the employees that Agile is important and increases the chances of buy-in.  But simply proclaiming “make it so” isn’t sufficient.  The executive must continue to be a key player in this on-going sponsor role.  Here are strategic shifts that are beneficial:
  • Study the Agile values and principles.  Knowing this language helps you become more conversant in Agile and to the teams and organizational players that are involved.  Studying the values and principles will also help you ascertain if you really believe in them (or not). 
  • Move away from the iron triangle of schedule, cost or scope and move to a framework focused on value.  Prioritizing ideas via cost of delay will provide a much better value-driven pipeline of ideas.  These ideas can be decomposed into increments that can then be validated with fast feedback loops. 
  • Measure and adapt the flow of your end-to-end concept to cash pipeline.  There is a tendency to focus on just development, but it is often other parts of the pipeline where ideas wait much too long.  Consider value stream mapping to better understand waiting states and no or low value steps. 
  • Adapt the organization from a hierarchical organization to more of a self-organizing organization.  When employees feel that they have more ownership and decision-making of their work, they will apply much more brainpower and bring passion to their work.
Key Sponsor Activities
Now let’s take a look at the more in-depth activities that you as an executive should consider playing and why.  These are more tactical, but since becoming Agile doesn’t happen overnight, they help keep the engagement and interest along the way. 
  • Treat your Agile initiative as a journey.  Because this does take time, it would benefit you to build an adaptable roadmap.  This may be best handled with a small local team of Agile champions who are committed to adopting Agile and an Agile consultant who has experience in this area.  To get a good understanding of what an Agile roadmap may look like, consider reading the book Being Agile: Your Roadmap to Successful Adoption of Agile.
  • Build a learning culture.  Consider establishing an education vision on how to best educate your organization. Infuse the education with experiments and experience. I suggest starting with the Value, Flow, and Quality materials that provide the reader with great insight into many of these new concepts and ideas, along with case studies and activities.
  • Build the foundation for a Customer Value-Driven Enterprise.  This is a company that is explicitly looking for the highest value ideas, applying an incremental mindset, and applying feedback loops to validate value along the way.  Learn more by reading The Agile Enterprise.
  • As an executive, examine your own behavior and align it with the Agile mindset of Agile values and principles with a focus of delivering customer value.  Are you speaking the language of Agile and the strategic shift that you are looking to achieve? 
  • Provide funding for the Agile initiative.  Funding should include meeting education needs, bringing in talent (coaches) as needed, and providing tool support. This may occur incrementally or per the budget cycle.  
  • Periodically provide public support for Agile. Establish an Agile communication plan, of which portions can be executed over time to keep employees aware of the progress and accomplishments of the deployment.  This may also include providing 'air cover' to the Agile deployment team and the coaches and champions and mitigating the risks that could prevent a move to Agile.  
  • Consider your staff.  Ask yourself, “are they Agile minded and aligned with the cultural shift that is needed?”  You may need to be involved with making adjustments to staff members who cannot make the switch away from command-and-control. This can be hard to do, but if they don't, then those around them will not take the change seriously.
  • Learn how to read agile metrics and measures of success. Gaining an understanding of the lagging to leading metric path, sprint burn-downs, release burn-ups, value capture, release frequency, Agile Mindset, Values, and Principles (MVP) Advisor, and other Agile-related metrics can help ensure the organization is moving in the right direction.
  • Adapt the employee compensation model toward agile behaviors being sought and away from rewarding command-and-control attributes. To change behavior, recognize the behavior you want to change, evaluate the reward system, and adapt it to the behavior that is needed for Agile. Without aligning the reward system to Agile, you will not get to behavior you want.
  • Attend the Sprint Reviews of your top products within your organizational scope. This will give you a genuine sense of progress and see actual working functionality of your products.
The intent of this article is to provide highlights of what an executive can do to get the most business benefits from their Agile initiative.  There can be other perspectives and further details.  As an executive (or those who have supported executives), what have you found helpful in your Agile journey?


  1. About 95% of the companies I speak to need exactly this. Right on!

    1. Thanks! Let me know if there are other actions you think they should do?

  2. The key executive needs to be more than a cheerleader who uses the jargon.

  3. Set direction, be a champion, share stories, remove obstacles, empower teams, promote trust and transparency, and don't waver or fall back into a regressive waterfall project mindset. Prepare to be amazed by new enthusiasm, higher value results and loyalty.

    1. I like the "don't waver" and "be amazed by new enthusiasm"! Thanks!

  4. Agile has that level of learning and surely when its about growing into a particular way much can be discussed and we do realize how appropriate something can be when its about growing so yeah agile consultancy is the perfect source of learning and thinking of doing better in many ways.

  5. Agile for Executives Training and other agile training courses with a well expert trainer. With our Agile for Executives Training program we bring out the best in Executive and help them respond to situation with agility.

  6. I am a huge fan of Agile! It’s awesome for moving large data segments and critical computing needs. When you’re dealing with data only efforts like logistics and the planning of things which require no feedback or input, it works great.

    Sadly Agile falls flat in many places and is not a cure all which you seem to promote. Where does it fail? Projects where imagination and iteration are needed are one. When creation is the output, be it a building design of any kind, a user interface of any kind where user testing is required Agile is the like stuffing a polygon into a circle or square hole. A project, where subjective feedback is necessary to form an objective decision that guides the direction of a project does not work in agile.

    Additionally the way you promote Agile sounds more like a cult then a process. “you may need to be involved with making adjustments to staff members who cannot make the switch away from command-and-control. This can be hard to do, but if they don't, then those around them will not take the change seriously.”
    My translation, fire those who don’t want to work with agile. They must to terminated. It maybe tough but you must do it to be successful in agile. Any experiences and highly valuable institutional knowledge must be driven out by “Adapt the employee compensation model toward agile behaviors being sought and away from rewarding command-and-control attributes.” Those who will not assimilate must be removed.

    Like I stated at the beginning agile has its place but it does not fit everywhere. You would not realize that reading this article.

    Philippe Kruchten said,”The agile movement is in some ways a bit like a teenager: very self-conscious, checking constantly its appearance in a mirror, accepting few criticisms, only interested in being with its peers, rejecting en bloc all wisdom from the past, just because it is from the past, adopting fads and new jargon, at times cocky and arrogant. But I have no doubts that it will mature further, become more open to the outside world, more reflective, and therefore, more effective.”

    Agile today is a splintered and morphed into mess with hybrid approaches:
    • Extreme Programming.
    • SCRUM.
    • DSDM.
    • Adaptive Software Development.
    • Crystal,
    • Feature-Driven Development,
    • Pragmatic Programming.
    • Lean Development.
    I mentioned it’s like a polygon and stuffing it into a round hole. As you shave away portions or lighten your agile methodology to make it fit your organization it’s no longer actually agile. Everyone now needs to adapt to you own unique version of agile which your making up as you go along. This approach adds stresses to teams, which makes the focus on process and not the project.

  7. Great thoughts! Thanks everyone for sharing!