Agile Talk: if you’re not clear on “Why”, “How” doesn’t matter
Many businesses, recognising that waterfall project management techniques don’t work in a fast-moving world, are embracing agile techniques.
But what is really changing? Or, maybe a better question is what is the essential value of agile? First of all a quick recap on what “agile” means.
Agile is a methodology for project management, in which the outcomes are broken down, prioritised and delivered incrementally, rather than altogether at the end.
Because outcomes are prioritised, and delivered throughout the project, there is greater visibility, and scope can be changed without endangering the most important outcomes.
Agile practitioners talk a lot about the tools – standups, scrum, retrospectives – i.e. the “how” but what gets talked about less is the “why”. The “why” is about how outcomes change rather than how processes change. One of my favourite sayings is: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there”. What I mean by that is you can have the best process, but if you don’t know the destination (vision, goal, call it what you will), none of that matters.
So let me suggest that everything we do in an organisation should be about preserving or increasing business value. If the business value of an action is not clear then we should consider whether we should keep doing it or not. Side note: stopping doing things of little value can be just as powerful as doing more of the things that add value.
The destination is therefore improved business value through improved customer outcomes or whatever metric the business cares about most. I recently read a book that I think nailed it.
It’s called the “Art of Business Value”, and here is the key quote:
Business value is a hypothesis held by the organization’s leadership as to what will best accomplish the organization’s ultimate goals or desired outcomes. What this means is that, as the business navigates towards business value, it is continually testing – against the hypothesis – what works well, and what works less well.
Because we don’t know in advance what will take us to the goal, we cannot set out all the steps to get there. That is the point in abandoning waterfall – we need to see the outcome of each intervention before we move onto the next thing. So, if your sprints are all mapped out to the conclusion of a 12 month project, you are not truly agile. For your organisation to be truly agile, you will have a destination in mind, but you won’t have mandated all the steps to get there.
What you learn from each sprint will inform future sprints. It may be a less certain process, but it will bring much higher rewards. So, next time you starting a project, start with the business value, be clear on the hypothesis, and keep building tests.
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