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Agile success requires flexibility and collaboration

Allen Bernard Freelance writer
The word change illuminated in white and reflected on a tiled floor

More and more organizations are implementing or expanding agile development, but agile is challenging. It represents a sea change not only in how your software-development organization works internally but also in how it interacts with IT operations and the business. And for agile to work, executives have to empower developers through a balance of more leadership and less hierarchy.

Waterfall software-development methodology is still used often (and can be the better approach, depending on the situation), but agile is the de facto way most organizations take today to software development. Forrester reports that, in 2011, just 4% of organizations were even considering agile; today, 59% of organizations are more than five years into their agile journey.

“When I say that executives should not just be committed, they should lead the transformation, what that means is they have to take the values and the principles of agile and infuse them into their strategy,” said Diego Lo Giudice, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester and author of Forrester's recently released Executive Guide 2022: Agile Transformation. “People don't necessarily introduce Agile in a durable way, in a sustainable way.”

The Agile Manifesto, said Lo Giudice, is a framework for this kind of change—presenting approaches most software developers are already familiar with and preferential toward. The manifesto consists of several values and principles that focus on culture, behavior, and completely new work styles—in particular, working in autonomous teams.

“[Managers] should look at the manifesto and say, ‘Right, do I want really autonomous teams?’ And if the answer is yes . . . they should give autonomy to the teams,” said Lo Giudice. “They should look for the impediments that people are having and take those impediments away.”

Enabling autonomy

Agile is made for small, autonomous, and integrated product teams that focus on small, workable items over short time horizons. The Executive Guide 2022 therefore recommends that leaders provide flexible, modular development platforms that can minimize dependencies between teams. (According to Lo Giudice's analysis, these platforms should be based on cloud-based microservices architectures.)

As the name implies, agile is also fast-moving—more experimental, less rigidly hierarchical. Peter Vollmer, a leadership consultant who works with Micro Focus in the Office of the CTO, urges that managers give their development teams the freedom to be creative and take risks.

“We have to use the collective brainpower of our workforce,” said Vollmer. “We cannot afford to have hierarchy and that some people on the top make the decisions.”

At the same time, however, Vollmer cautions that managers and development teams must still adhere to an outcomes-based approach.

“The purpose is not to fail often but to truncate unsuccessful paths quickly,” said Vollmer. “So that means, in a digital age, it's more like an organism; we have to adapt to ever-changing market requirements, ever-changing conditions, ever-changing technology.”

"Autonomous teams . . . means that managers need to work differently," added Lo Giudice. "They have to become change agents, rather than command-and-control managers."

Change 101

Forrester reports that 38% of agile professionals said that a lack of leadership is slowing agile adoption. To facilitate change and eliminate obstacles, many companies assign a dedicated executive to lead the agile transformation. These leaders align culture with behavioral change, set road maps, and prioritize investment while selecting the right projects to accelerate the organization's agile journey.

For these leaders to be successful, Vollmer advocates that they should become students—continuously learning about agile and the needs, wants, and desires of the people they are leading. They also must embrace collaborative thinking and be humble. 

“If you, as a leader, think you are the one with the answers, you are the one who always knows best, you lose,” Vollmer said. “You need the perspective of your teams [and] of your experts to make the right decision.”

Don't go chasing agile

Agile isn’t always possible to do 100%. There are times and projects where using agile may not be the best way to go, said Lo Giudice. For legacy software that does not change rapidly or require constant updates, waterfall may prove more effective.

“If you do agile on siloed systems, at some point, you hit the wall and then you'll go back to using waterfall,” said Lo Giudice.

The Executive Guide 2022 notes that even digital-native companies struggle when they add formal governance frameworks to their development practices.

“The rewards of having agile in every system drop sharply,” reads the Executive Guide 2022, “as many systems don’t require frequent changes and the added resources you need don’t yield as much return on investment as innovative product development.” 

Pair agile and DevOps

Agile allows you to build software fast. If it takes too long to get it into production, however, you may lose whatever competitive advantage those changes were meant to impart.

Therefore, said Lo Giudice, while each approach to managing the software-development lifecycle can be done in isolation, organizations should pair agile with DevOps, running them as a single program. According to Forrester, 56% of agile developers who are running a combined program of agile and DevOps report that it improves customer experience, while 61% say that a combined program allows them to achieve greater release frequency.

“Agile and DevOps are two sides of the same coin,” said Lo Giudice. “You can do one without the other, but it's not going to give you all the benefits.”

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