Is Agile a Software topic only?
I was invited to talk on a Podcast of the VDMA association about Agile. It’s in German, but I wrote down an extended transcript. Please note that the podcast is directed towards people of the mechanical industry that may not have any prior knowledge of Agile.
1. What is Agile?
Agility is the goal of adaptability, which means reducing the cost of
changing. Everyone can see that the world is becoming less and less predictable, which makes agility a desirable skill. You want to be able to change your products, markets, policies and strategies as easily and as often as needed.
Agile started with software development, but we now know that it impacts any single aspect of an organization. From engineering, leadership, organizational structure, personnel management, and even more…
2. Why and since when Agile became relevant?
I think it actually started with globalization.
Before that companies had their local market with known customers and competition. The pressure came from efficiency, margins, and cost reduction: “How can we sell more with less?”
Today the game has changed. The market is now global, it has become multidimensional and the same can be said about the competition. You can’t rely on long term predictions as they are too complex to compute for too little accuracy. Technology companies like Sony, Dyson or Tesla are trying their hand in the car market, with more or less success. The pressure now comes from innovation, creativity and agility, and this without spending millions on useless experiments. You now play to stay relevant, not to dominate, so you’d want to change as quickly as the world does.
3. Where does agile make sense, only for software or also in other areas like mechanical engineering?
As already mentioned, if agility is taken seriously, it should impact
every aspects of the organization. It requires changes on your HR policies and how your value and pay your people, or changes on how strategic decisions are taken. Every aspect that does not help you to be adaptive or flexible need to be changed. It will be translated differently, but the mindset remains the same.
Talking about Hardware, there is a story that I always have in mind. The source code for the Appolo 13 mission was written on paper and then hard coded in the electronics. Obviously, the cost of changing the code was incredibly high, but 50 years later, our understanding, our development methods and toolchain evolved to allow us to be agile.
Mechanical engineering is on the same path with a bigger emphasis on IOT on the shop floor and Industry 4.0. On top of this, new methods and tools opened up possibilities, which CAD and PLM solution helping to speed up development, and to reduce the cost of revisions. I think this story show that Agile is not a software only topic, it just started there.
4. what is the current status? How many companies work (at least partially) agile?
There are not many metrics on this topic, and really no quantitative metric to measure a Mindset change. We have to rely on qualitative observation and what we can observe is that nowadays every successful business uses methods to increase its adaptability. Be it Tech companies, Finance, Insurance, Car Manufacturers, Aviation, Healthcare and more. You only need to take a look at how many jobs offers for Scrum Master are available online, and at who post them!
From what I could observe it is often a local initiative, a team, a few teams or a single product; and not a mass adoption. It takes a long time (too long) to change the structure of an organization to allows an efficient scaling of Scrum and Agile — and this is the big challenge now.
4. What methods are here to support a scaled Agile transformation?
There are two major frameworks that are emerging at the moments.
One is encapsulating Scrum in several administrative levels in order to maximize control over the process. The second is reducing the complexity of the organization in order to enable fast and decisive changes.
Having in mind that Agile promotes fast and decisive changes, I think it is clear which approach I would recommend. We should aim to do more with less overhead, and not rebuild a classical controlling structure over some scrum teams. A classical structure will only lead to the same mindset.
6. What are the biggest challenges in the introduction of agile?
Surprisingly the main reason for the failure of an Agile Transition is not methodic but is linked to the corporate culture, and the lack of management support. Exciting, isn’t it? That’s the reason why Agile should not be considered as a software topic only. It runs deeper than just product development.
My experience shows that culture follows structure, which means that you cannot trigger a cultural change in an organization that uses the same structure and processes as before. People will always optimize themselves in order to get the best result out of a given situation; and often with the least effort possible. So simply asking people to change is pointless, you have to look at the overall situation and create desirable outcomes.
Don’t reward people for being great at multitasking, or for not making mistakes. Reward them for being adaptive and for learning what your customer wants. Simply put, change the rules of the game and players will change the way they play.
7. What would be the first step in establishing agile in the company?
This is a very hard question and it really depends on the purpose of the company, their “Why”, and on their initial setup.
Once it is understood that culture follows structure, then the biggest and most efficient change is the abolition of multitasking. First of all because it is a nightmare in terms of efficiency but also because it is going to start a chain reaction that will affect everyone in the organization. The focus that you will obtain will help you massively to tackle huge transformation with ease.
The goal will become “How do we ensure that we do the right thing within a fixed time frame?” and not “How do we ensure that we do all these things?”
8. What is the future of Agile Work? How will it develop in the future?
I don’t know, and that’s great! It shows that the agile principles apply to agile itself. We have to stay on the edge and never stop experimenting and learning.
On the other hand, I wish that more organizations would start asking themselves the right question and then pursue their goals with courage and consistency. That people in the morning can wake up happy to go to work, ready to design together the successes of tomorrow.
The podcast will soon be available on the VDMA Spotify Channel.