Agile: Creator and Destroyer of Value – part 1

Agile creative mess

Summary

Agile development is not a silver bullet, there are numerous situations where the Spiral Model or even waterfall is a better choice. More importantly, methodologies are always trumped by common sense and highly skilled team members. Only these latter two always result in success.


 

There is a lot of value in Agile, but only when combined with a healthy dose of common sense. Therein lies the problem.

All but a few pitch the Agile Manifesto as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Consultants and trainers earn large amounts of money by selling Agile as the solution for all development-related problems. To them, the Agile Manifesto is like the Bible.

In reality, many Agile projects take forever to complete or are abandoned after failing to deliver the desired results. I see companies rehiring the project managers and architects they fired a couple of years ago as part of implementing Agile. These companies went through the Peak of Inflated Expectations and are now crawling out of the Trough of Disillusionment.

The good

Every new day is more unpredictable and dynamic than the day before. The higher the uncertainty of a market, the more the business and IT crave for flexibility and experimentation. In these situations, the business cannot articulate and fixate all requirements upfront, a prerequisite of traditional waterfall programming. At first sight, Agile enters the scene therefore as the knight in shining armor as it:

  • puts the customer first,
  • delivers rapidly (e.g. develop and deploy most valuable requirements first),
  • strives to eliminate waste (e.g. no elaborated requirements analysis for a proof of concept),
  • amplifies learning (e.g. customer feedback after every sprint demo),
  • makes decisions as late as possible (e.g. adjust priorities backlog along the way),
  • empowers the team (e.g. encourage instead of motivate),
  • has built-in integrity in (e.g. soft controls, authority based on expertise not hierarchy), and
  • sees the whole (e.g. work towards a shared business goal).

All good stuff, which makes Agile such an easy sell. Vanilla Agile (I) is actually great to realize proof of concepts and to determine the expected velocity of a large development project. In the latter case, several sprints are used to develop several features of various complexity, thereby providing the project team with an fairly accurate proxy of the velocity of the project as whole.

Realizing the software equivalent of a fifty story building with Vanilla Agile is however not such a good idea. More likely than not, the building will collapse before reaching the tenth floor.

Before moving towards the bad and ugly stuff, first some neutral, but nevertheless relevant, observations about Agile.

Agile is a business concept

Samsung introduced its wearable Gear, and even the Gear 2, before Apple introduced its Apple Watch. The reviews of especially the first generation Gear smartwatch were mixed at best, and consumers had a similar view considering a 30% return rate in Best Buy locations (II). For Samsung, being first was more important than offering the best experience. To mitigate the risks associated with this go-to-market strategy, Samsung uses a relatively high release frequency for its products. Apple follows a different strategy. Products are tested and refined within the company walls until considered mature enough to appeal to the customer segments targeted by Apple. Both companies use iterations, but their implementations differ.

The business and IT teams of a successful upscale brick-and-mortar retailer tasked with digitalizing the business model face a similar challenge: make the new digital platform available to all customers as soon as it reaches Minimum Viable Product status or wait until a more polished release becomes available.  The main benefit of the first option is speed-to-market, reaching wealthy online customers before the competition does. However, launching an unpolished platform to high-end customers may also alienate them.

Hence, while Samsung, Apple and the retailer all benefit from iterative sprints and other Agile-related concepts, there is no single “best” implementation of Agile. Depending on the market (e.g. risk taking/averse customers, low/high competition) and strategy (e.g. Prospector versus Defender), the business and IT have to decide on the company-specific implementation of Agile (III).

Due to the digitalization of business models, Agile is first and foremost a business concept, even though it was created to improve the agility of IT.

Agile did not replace waterfall

The 8 million lines on board of the F35 Lightning II are embedded in thousands of components, such as the radar, engine and cockpit, manufactured by hundreds of suppliers. To ensure they, nevertheless, function in perfect harmony, the architecture, technologies and functional requirements all have to be defined upfront. Furthermore, all the code required to fly has to be fully functional and error free when the plane taxis to the runway for the first time. There is no room for continuous delivery when in there air, nor a long defect backlog. The same applies to the software used in nuclear power plants or x-ray machines. They all require a first-time-right approach.

Another situation that benefits from a more traditional development approach is an one-on-one conversion of a well-documented and stable application written in a legacy language. Here too, the potential benefits of Agile (e.g. demo progress to customer, frequent deployments) are outstripped by the additional costs related to iterative development. More generally, continue to consider waterfall-oriented or the V-model (Validation & Verification model) in situations where:

  • the requirements are or have to be understood completely at the beginning
  • the first deployment has to cover the full scope and/or has to be error free

Besides more efficient staffing and resource allocation, waterfall development also allows for more room for more time-intensive tasks like documenting user cases and drafting manuals for the operations and support team (IV). Sometimes the business needs a fast, agile and fuel-thirsty speed boat while other situations call for a predictable, robust and efficient container ship.

Agile and waterfall both have their sweet spots, they are complementary.

End of part 1 of this blog on the pro’s and con’s of Agile.

 


Notes and references

(I) I use the term ‘Vanilla Agile’ when implementations and/or trainings are based on theory only, ignoring common sense and lessons learned from practical experience.

(II) Grant, R.,  Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatches have embarrassing 30% return rate, Venturebeat.com, October 2013.

(III) See also these blogs: 1, 2, 3.

(IV) Gibbs, R. D., Project Management with the IBM Rational Unified Process: Lessons from the Trenches, 2006.

Leadership in Digital Markets – part 3

Leadership in turbulent times

Summary

When a static analogue business model evolves into a dynamic digital business model, the leadership style has to evolve with it. Similarly, when a native digital startup matures and starts to diversify, the leadership team has to be infused with new skill sets. This last part covers the transition from the current leadership style to one optimized for dominating hybrid and digital markets.

You can find the first part of this blog on leadership in the digital age here and the second part here.


 

Team members expect a lot from their leaders. They are considered a source of innovation, passion, vision, personal development and trust. Compared with leaders, managers have a fairly easy job as they are expected to focus on maintaining the status quo, improving efficiency, achieving short-term goals and day-to-day control. Nevertheless, a leader is still a human, as pointed out by Maddock and Fulton (I):

“They put their pants on just like the rest of us do. They have both good and bad traits. From time to time, when things are going badly, their old character traits slip through and they become irritable, angry, irrational and capricious. They behave in immature ways. They exhibit traits that amaze us and we say, “I always thought of him/her as a leader! What’s going on?” They disappoint us.”

Disappointment is also all but inevitable when we expect a leader to excel in every situation. Everybody has her/his strengths and weaknesses, a fact often overlooked when a company is faced with the disruption of its market. When the current CEO has a strong track record in brick-and-mortar retail expansion, she/he likely struggles to a) sense and b) act decisive and effective when customers shift towards mobile-first shopping.

Evolving leadership 101

Regardless of the technology-density of the companies’ business model, every manager should strive to become a leader as they are far more valuable to a company. Today’s highly educated employees no longer need somebody to tell them what to do next while several industries are actively substituting employees with either robots or contract workers. Combined with the ability to automate increasingly complex management tasks, the traditional manager is quickly turning into an endangered species.

The most differentiating capability of a leader is the ability to build trust. Trust that you as a leader:

  • balance the interests of the company, employees and your personal objectives
  • provide clear and inspiring goals and a strategy to achieve them
  • empower and coach individual team members to make decisions and learn from them
  • involve team members in conversations early in the decision-making process

From personal experience, I know that the third and fourth bullets look good on paper, but are difficult to translate into day-to-day practice. As everybody is blessed with a unique set of strengths and development points, a leader has to determine the willingness and ability of every individual team member to perform a certain task (‘situational leadership‘). There is no single “best” style of leadership.

To improve the ability and consequently self-esteem of junior team members, many leaders launched apprenticeship programs as they focus on solving real life problem, learning from people of different ages, applicable know how and socialization into the company. Investing in coaching and mentoring programs is another powerful way to help team members to grow as a leader or professional.

When discussing the future of long-term team members faced by the imminent transformation of their business processes, leaders focus on the potential of that individual. The pink slip is considered a last resort. Managers react differently. Most are unable to look beyond the current tasks and responsibilities, using the pink slips an easy way out.

More importantly: true leaders prevent the company from ending up with its back against the wall in the first place.

Evolving from analogue to digital

As late as 2012, CIO.com reported that:

“There’s a dangerous lack of confidence in the board’s digital literacy, revealed in our exclusive survey of 250 IT leaders. Sixty-four percent say the board “doesn’t do its homework” about technology matters and 57 percent say directors rely heavily on what they read in the press to evaluate IT strategy. Some 40 percent say board members “don’t really care about IT.” 

Due to the ongoing shakeout in many industries, boards had no choice but change their tactics, hiring 30- and 40- somethings to help them make sense of digitalization. These technology-savvy high-potentials are able to translate technology into business value by linking a new technology to an emerging market need. They are individuals who understand that no technology can transform a market without a solid business model (II).

Besides these IQ-related skills, leaders score high on Emotional Quotient (EQ) and get out of their functional silos as digitalization requires an end-to-end approach. In other words,

“a leadership model that is less autocratic but more of an authoritative and networking nature.” (III)

Last but not least, effective leadership starts with self-reflection and understanding one’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Shorter product and technology life cycles, culturally and geographically dispersed virtual teams and less predictable customer demand are only some of the forces at work today. Only leaders who sense the impact of these and other forces and adjust their long-established intuitions will be able to emerge on the winning side.

Closing words

This blog only activates the left side of the brain, the IQ part. From an intellectual perspective, it is fairly easy to identify the traits that make a good leader. However, managing and especially leading is truly a profession in a sense that it requires the mastery of a complex set of soft and hard skills through practical experience, mentoring and being blessed with talent.

Reading books, articles, blogs or even formal education cannot create effective managers, let alone leaders. Teal expressed it as follows in his article  The Human Side of Management:

“And still the troublesome fact is that mediocre management is the norm. This is not because some people are born without the management gene or because the wrong people get promoted or because the system can be manipulated—although all these things happen all the time. The overwhelmingly most common explanation is much simpler: capable management is so extraordinarily difficult that few people look good no matter how hard they try. Most of those lackluster managers we all complain about are doing their best to manage well.”

Hence, leading in the digital is first and foremost about identifying, attracting, nurturing and retaining those unicorns that score high on both IQ and EQ. They in turn can identify, attract, nurture and retain the rest of the winning team.


Notes and references

(I) Maddock, R., Fulton, R., Motivation, Emotions, and Leadership, 1998.

(II) In their article The Transformative Business Model, Kavadias, Ladas and Loch argue that new technologies alone cannot transform an industry. Nicholas Carr made a similar observation in his famous article IT Doesn’t Matter in 2003: the ubiquity of information technology prevents it from being a source of sustainable advantage. In time, every new technology commoditizes or is replaced by a more capable substitute.

(III) Kets de Vries, M., Evolving Leadership in the Digital Age, 2016.