What Small, Multi-Teamed Development Organizations Need to Do to Transition to Lean-Agile

September 20, 2015 — Posted by Al Shalloway

There is no magic to effective software development. With almost two decades of Agile experience and over a decade of large scale Agile experience, Net Objectives has clearly identified what is required to be effective.  While it’s a surprisingly simple approach, it requires the proper mindset to accomplish it.   One starts by agreeing to focus on the delivery of business value incrementally.  Agile should be about incremental business delivery, not team iterations.  Essentially, becoming effective in IT and product development requires the following:

  • Effectively decide what to work on
  • Avoid working on too many things at once
  • Organize your development organization so that delays in workflow are minimized
  • Work in an holistic manner across the development organization to provide both quick feedback on and incremental delivery of value
  • Get clear on where you are, where you want to be and create a roadmap for the transition.

Deciding What to Work On

This is a multi-faceted problem.  One must not only decide what to work on, but must focus on delivering value quickly through incremental delivery.  Delivering value in stages enables the company to get a quicker return on investment.  It also provides quicker feedback on what is being built as well as penetrating the market quickly.  Product management must shift from a long term development plan to a long term vision with shorter term deliveries.  Net Objectives has pioneered the use of Minimum Business Increments focused on target markets to enable faster delivery of incremental value.  These chunks of value must also be sequenced properly based on potential gains as well are costs of delay and risk.

Avoid working on too many things at once

Focusing on the delivery of business value enables the organization to align across all roles.  The question then becomes – how do we assign our capacity to the most important items we’ve agreed upon.  Working on more than our capacity slows us down because it injects delays into the workflow. These delays cause waste such as increased time to fix bugs and to perform integration. 

Part of accomplishing this is to create agreements on how to handle unplanned work.  Not just maintenance, which is pretty straightforward, but the all too pervasive “shoulder taps” that are often just pet projects of executives and marketers.  Not having an agreement on this will result in developers being pressured into taking on work that is less important than what was agreed to.  This typically happens by working on these “shoulder taps” on the side – creating much waste and unpredictability.

Organize Your Development Organization So that Delays in Workflow Are Minimized

The two most popular methods for Agile software development take extreme positions on this essential action.  Scrum insists you organize around cross-functional teams.  Unfortunately, once organizations get beyond 50 developers this is either impossible or financially non-viable.  The Kanban Method actually ignores this issue, contending that developers will figure out the structure on their own and that the focus should be on flow alone.  

The reality is that one must attend to how the work flows through the organization while attending to the structure of the organization.  Net Objectives believes that creating cross-functional teams to the greatest extent possible is the correct focus.  This requires management’s involvement, not merely the teams self-organizing.  Both Scrum and Kanban have value – it is important to take advantage of the lessons of both.

Work in an holistic manner across the development organization to provide both quick feedback on and incremental delivery of value

A focus on teams gets pieces of the work done only to lose any time gained to extensive and costly integration.  This delays feedback from the user causing even more waste.  The perspective should not be the team but rather the value stream (the workflow from concept to consumption). A focus on the teams actually creates challenges as local optimizations slow down overall improvement.

Get clear on where you are, where you want to be and create a roadmap for the transition.

There is not one correct path, regardless of the fact that most consultants have only one path to sell.  You must determine where you are and what you have to do to get where you want to go.  The end result is not that difficult to determine, as stated above.  The path to get there is influenced on several factors – current method of identifying work to be done, current eco-system, culture, technical debt and other factors.  One should look for opportunities to make a jump to a better solution, but must also be aware of potential pushback in doing so.

Create a Focus on Finishing

“Stop starting and start finishing” is a classic kanban mandate that should be followed.  Value is not created when started, but only when delivered and consumed.  Starting too many things creates waste and delays value.

Net Objectives Approach to Lean-Agile for Mid-Sized Organizations

We have found the dynamics of Lean-Agile to be greatly influenced by the size of the organization.  We have four general size categories:

  • Team centric (development organizations from 4-25 people)
  • Small organizations with 3- 10 teams (25-100 people)
  • Mid-size organizations from 100-400 people
  • Large organizations of over 400 people

The mid-size is an interesting one because it is too large for Scrum but too small for the Scaled Agile Framework.  Fortunately, it is not a particularly difficult size to work with. To implement the aforementioned goals, one must look at the following questions:

  1. How many stakeholders are there? (multiple stakeholders complicate things to some extent, but not overly so at this size)
  2. Can true cross-functional teams be developed?
  3. How many specialized skills are there that are in short demand?
  4. How much technical debt is present?
  5. Is there one approach that can work at the team level or must
  6. What is the best way to handle dependencies across teams if true cross-functional teams can’t be formed
  7. How should we plan our work?

There are many solutions to each of these questions.  Again, the real issue, is which of these solutions is correct for your organization.  To determine this, Net Objectives takes a six step approach:

  1. Learn something about our client (you)
  2. Work with our client to understand their options and assist them in making intelligent choices in moving forward
  3. Provide core workflow training to align executives, management and development
  4. Provide basic technical training to make product owners, project managers / Scrum Masters, developers and testers more effective
  5. Provide embedded coaching as needed
  6. Provide train the trainer coaching to make our client more self-sufficient

When your development group is between 25-100 in size, you are too large for Scrum (please don't try Scrum of Scrums) and too small for SAFe.  Let us help show you how using Lean principles can help your entire organization become Agile very quickly.

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.



        

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Al Shalloway
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