To adopt Agile is to start doing things in a different way. Instead of trying to forecast all possible risks and scenarios and trying to control them, Agile invites us to experiment – to try and learn, the faster the better, so we can adapt quickly and generate value and success.
So, why are Big Tech companies interested in it? In this series of articles (minimum 5!), we will try to explain it, starting with how we start and why to collaborate with them. We will share the main benefits a huge company could expect from an Agile adoption.
In each of these articles, you will find one story, one of the many situations we experienced together, how we approached them and what learnings we took away.
These blog posts are based on ERNI’s talk at CAS (Conference Agile Spain) 2022, the largest and most important Agile conference in Spain, and the feedback collected. If you want to see the talk, you can just search for our ERNI Academy YouTube channel and watch the reprisal we delivered at our Barcelona offices, or find the Agile-Spain channel and watch the original video.
“We want to do Scrum”
Our starting point was the need of expert Agile support from one of the line managers of their R&D area. The company decided to start an Agile initiative months ago and they were struggling in applying Scrum.
This line Manager decided that she needed a consultant/Scrum Master to help them, and called ERNI, as a trusted partner; we started by providing the first Scrum Master for more than 20 teams and 200 software engineers.
How could we install the first Scrum Master if their Agile initiative had been ongoing for months? These top-down decisions are a trend we often see in large companies: strategy is determined at high levels of decision and then executed at different lower levels. This execution is often done without external support or mentoring; the investment is in basic training in Agile (Scrum, SAFe, Kanban…) for their current engineers, and often no real change is effected: same teams, same people, and new roles are divided between old roles (managers as Scrum Masters, for example).
Top-down decisions present several challenges and almost all of them are related to misalignments and communication issues: between direction and management, between management and teams, between areas, etc. It may not be the easiest environment in which to start an Agile initiative, but it is a perfect opportunity for learning.
We start by understanding and learning which are the real needs behind the initiative and behind their idea of Agile and Scrum, and what they want to accomplish.
Goals and needs vary significantly depending on who you ask:
For upper management, they have a lack of predictability that does not allow them to take decisions: they spend more time managing urgencies than defining their next steps regarding business and product development.
For line managers, they need to delegate: they are superwomen and men, with not only several teams reporting to them but also the need to take care of their professional careers, manage their salaries and promotions, update and take care of their teams backlog, define the yearly roadmap, manage meetings, attend and facilitate Scrum events…
And teams suffer the consequences, for example, with priorities changing continuously due to urgencies or not having their managers as available as they need to be.
At this point it is important to ask ourselves: how can we help them to overcome their challenges? Which is the first and most impactful action we can take?
First focus on quick wins
Focusing on quick wins is the way to go. Why? If we manage to solve some of their current and most urgent challenges, generating a positive impact for them, we create willingness and hope – willingness to try new things and a hope that they are, by themselves, capable of improving and making their lives easier.
A quick win needs to be well thought out; we must not forget that a local change always affects the whole system: our responsibility is to think in the mid/long term and make sure any action or decision we help them to take is focused on a long-term sustainable improvement.
In this particular case, we focused on improving the team’s predictability. We identified and agreed with all players that that was the way to go for three main reasons:
It was the number one priority for upper management.
If we focused on actions that promoted teams’ self-organisation, we would be helping line managers to delegate and make their agendas lighter.
Teams would see their urgencies decrease, as the organisation would be capable to organise and plan weeks in advance.
We think that a lack of predictability in large companies can be caused by different reasons, and one of them is their own complexity. In this particular case, with more than 300,000 employees and 5 locations worldwide, internal networks and communications are complex and unpredictable.
Working with the teams, we focused on creating transparency: we started to show all the work that we did – and not only what was planned – even when a colleague came and told us “Could you help me with this? It will just be a moment”.
What we discovered is that the teams were doing much more work than what they were showing, and that much of that work was not planned, falling into categories such as urgencies, favours, petitions from other areas and teams, etc.
They planned a sprint based on their capacity, and in the end did not complete most of the work (predictability, at first, it was around 15–30%)… But they did even more work than their theoretical capacity, without even realising it!
Transparency allows us to show our challenges; in this case, it allowed us to understand why the teams were struggling in being predictable and starting to work in root challenges, such as how we communicated with other areas and teams and how (and why) we decided to start working on tasks that were not planned.
With these data conversations initiated, trust started to increase, and together (with R&D, business…) we defined how to interact and understand the consequence of our decisions and actions.
Within 3 months our predictability had grown to 80% and we started to develop the soft skills needed to negotiate and take consent agreements with other teams and areas. By doing so, we reduced the amount of urgencies teams needed to manage.
Our line manager started to delegate all backlog management to the team, allowing other potential leaders to emerge (we will talk about this in the next post!). In addition, other teams started to take our very same actions; therefore, upper management started to have an R&D quarterly roadmap to work with.