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The Present and Future State of Agility



The Modern Agilist is a podcast devoted to discussing all things related to agile and large-scale software delivery. We recently took the time to discuss The 15th State of Agile report, the longest continuously running annual Agile survey. There were several key takeaways as we unpacked the information-dense report. We've collated the highlights below but if you want the full experience, be sure to listen to the full 1-hour conversation here.


Don't Call it a Comeback!

The state of agile, you say? More like the future of business and technical agility.

Despite what's frequently said, Agile is alive, well, and thriving. Possibly magnified by an increased shift to remote working, the previous year's growth can only be described as explosive with an increase among software teams from 37% in 2020 to 86% in 2021. While most of this adoption is represented by software teams, it's also true that agile methods are increasingly being adopted by non-software groups. Its to be expected that other organizational areas such as marketing, security, HR, sales, and finance will see increased adoption of agile methods as well. Like a self-replicating ooze that starts in a computer science department but then grows to overtake other, closely located departments, so agile spread will grow deeper in software development and spillover into other creative domains.


The Alpha Opportunity for Practitioners

This represents an incredibly unique opportunity for agile practitioners. As software eats the world, so brands become increasingly software-centered. Companies grew through various stages to arrive at where they are now. They started with outsourcing software development then created their own internal software departments before finally transitioning into becoming technology companies' proper. Software has now become the primary driver of product and brand identity. In a digital economy, software becomes the competitive advantage See: Harvard Business Review


If agile practitioners are masters of software delivery and everything becomes software, the agilist finds themself in a critical role of being a master all delivery. As the agile approach and the methods become generalized to all fields and products, so does the value of the agilist.


Embracing Systems Thinking

The greatest current need is not a particular framework or scaling solution but "systems thinking". Many, if not most, teams have put into practice basic Scrum, yet there is a lack of alignment to business outcomes and an ability to orchestrate that individual team's delivery in a coordinated scalable fashion.


It's easy for an organization to hand everyone a manual and have them apply it but what is truly required is a deep understanding and application of design principles personalized to the needs of the organization. Parallels could be made in the distinctions we make between programmers and software engineers. The distinction is one of scope and scale and in a similar way the greatest need among leaders in the agile space is deep understanding, systems thinking, and the ability to apply that in the form of process engineering.


Practitioners who adopt this way of thinking are distinguishable from standard Scrum Masters and set themselves apart as true Agilists and Agile Methodologists. This touches on one of the biggest barriers to adopting agile methods and that is inconsistencies in practices and processes across the organization. This is one of the very first things mentioned in this report and it's this very thing it is addressable by someone operating within the mind space of systems thinking.


Agile and DevOps Symbiotics

While most groups are using well-known things like kanban boards, bug trackers, and wikis, other more technical tools are growing in popularity and adoption. Things like automated builds and CI/CD. This reflects the way agile and DevOps have really become extremely symbiotic and tightly coupled. This is valuable because it reveals a course for businesses and agilist to pursue in their agile adoption in an organic and proven path. As the self-replicating ooze spreads so does the epicenter grow deeper in its autonomous automation and technical sophistication.


One opportunity that might be revealed by this trend is that technology leaders in the source control space might have a real advantage over products that are first focusing on project management. This is because engineering teams are more likely to adopt project management features from their existing source control tools rather than continue to leverage third-party project management tools.


Stewards of Culture and Macro Optimization

Probably the greatest blocker to increased agility is culture. This manifests itself in inconsistent adoption and application across teams and departments. What's it really matter if the work is getting done? Rather than complain about it or place the responsibility at the feet of executive leadership, the agilist must control the controllable's. This means assuming the role of educator, tutor, and coach and taking the time to answer the most important questions of "Why".


It's also not the responsibility of everyone in an organization to have their head in the clouds trying to optimize the big picture. There are natural and necessary boundaries of concern and the agilist finds themself in the privileged position to be looking for, addressing, and measuring the impact of those organizational-wide optimizations. This means thinking in terms of the theory of constraints and pursuing global optima. See: The Illusion of Local Optima


The Remote-First Shift

With such a high calling and challenge, how does the agilist cultivate culture and provide macro visibility? This was a big ask in a colocated setting, how much more is it a challenge in a fully remote setting!? For starters, this means designing for visibility. If leadership can't see the road or the dashboard of the ship, it's destined to hit a ditch.


Once this visibility is achieved, several advantages become clearly apparent. The total talent pool is orders of magnitude larger. Office distractions are manageable. Optimum working hours for employees become malleable and can be adjusted to meet the worker's natural strengths. When taken together, these constitute greater organizational flexibility. The very thing we are charged with providing and increasing. As online whiteboarding and brainstorming tools improve, so will remote creative and collaborative work effectiveness.


Final Thoughts

Don't miss the boat. The agile space is the most fascinating confluence of technology, software engineering, systems thinking, and organizational design. The upside related to expanding beyond software teams and into other departments and domains is enormous. For the person seeking to make the biggest impact, there are fewer roles more accessible and impactful than that of the agile practitioner. What is agile, how can it be applied, what are the next steps for developing this science to the 21st century? These are all questions that must be pondered and answered by emerging thought leaders. The time to be a change agent is now and we are creating that opportunity. Get started by joining the conversation on The Modern Agilist.

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