Tag Archives: agility

Tenets of agile—maximizing the work not done

Today’s IT teams are adopting the agile methodology far beyond the realm of software development—think team collaboration methods and a self-organizing culture.

In fact, McKinsey director Paul Willmott believes most organizations can glean lessons from the Agile Manifesto on minimizing complexity and increasing decision velocity. Willmott says that rapid decision making is at the heart of agile techniques, like scrums. “Small cross-functional teams work side by side, checking in daily for quick progress updates and problem solving,” he explains. “Working at this pace means focusing on fewer objectives and putting in place well-defined controls, such as decision rights and risk guidelines.”

Agile just makes sense in a broader IT context. Reflection at regular intervals? Customer-focused processes? Huddles? Sure. These ideas make perfect sense at a higher level. But buried deep in the Agile Manifesto is the tenth principle, which is often a source of confusion. It states, “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.”

Though the manifesto arguably evokes poetic form (it’s even in stanzas rather than a numbered list), this tenet is the only component of agile that delves into “art.” It’s also pretty confusing at first glance, especially if you’ve been compulsively driven to “get stuff done” your entire life. We took a journey to discover the true meaning of this idea and whether it’s worth your time.

In defence of not getting stuff done

You’re probably familiar with some abysmal case studies on IT project failures. The statistics on project management are decidedly not great: up to 75 percent of IT executives anticipate their projects will fail from the beginning, while Harvard Business Review found that one in six IT projects go over budget by 200 percent and exceed their time line by 70 percent.

Organizations need to control for complexity and do everything they can to keep their projects simple. Simplicity could be the single most effective way to prevent failure. Consider MailChimp, which surpassed iContact in features delivery while having fewer people on the tech team (20–30 employees for the former, 100 for the latter) and being truly agile, according to former iContact employee and agile consultant Robert Galen.

Galen also dives into the story of Unix, which you may know from its product Linux. Their original, simple architecture was elegant and streamlined, offering only what users needed and used while allowing for more complex erecting when required. Small teams with defined goals can make huge impacts on technology.

Attack the 80 percent

Think of Microsoft Excel or your smartphone. Do you use its complete functionality on a consistent basis? If you’re like most of us, the answer is definitely “nope.” Research by Standish Group reveals the average technical project results in an 80–20 percent split. Only 20 percent of features are used often, while the other 80 are used infrequently—or hardly ever.

While this knowledge is critical for IT workers who develop technologies, it’s also an important life lesson. When your IT team works on any number of projects, from security to policy, will 100 percent of your work have a real impact? Chances are, it won’t. Focus on perfecting the 20 percent and eliminating as much of the rest as possible—especially if it doesn’t provide any real value to your team or your customers.

Suman Bhowmick of the Scrum Alliance recommends a simple, three-part questionnaire that’s invaluable for weed-whacking useless work in a ton of IT settings. Before you add an item to your to-do list, ask the following:

  • Will it deliver valuable outcomes?
  • Does it cost more resources (time or money) than the value it provides?
  • Does it duplicate work we’ve already done?

Team collaboration is an art

The ability to consider time, budget, technical restraints, and even emotions while remaining agile is far more than a science. Learning to say “no” requires a constant reevaluation of competing priorities. What worked for your IT team last year could be the wrong decision today. Agile enthusiast Aaron Krumholtz stated, “Maybe it is insanity, but I think we do need to ask the same question over and over, and expect a different answer.”

From the time we enter the workforce, we’re trained to use team collaboration sessions to create massive to-do lists, and then retreat to our work stations to plow through our tasks at a breakneck speed. While this ethic is certainly admirable, the tenth principle of the Agile Manifesto begs to differ on its effectiveness. By working with others to assess whether projects, features, and tasks actually have value, you can maximize your team’s impact in very real ways.

Are social tools in the workplace the key to agility or a complete nightmare?

When 13 employees decided to quit email for a week, the results were surprising. They had more face-to-face conversations, their stress decreased, heart rate monitors showed they moved more, and they spent more time on tasks before being interrupted. Endless emails and meetings are productivity killers, making social tools like internal instant messaging platforms a silver bullet for collaboration. Cloud-based or mobile tools can be particularly beneficial in an age where 1.7 million Canadians now work from home.

McKinsey found that social collaboration tools are nearly universal: 93 percent of executives report their teams use at least one social platform, which is typically mobile-accessible, and 74 percent report that these tools are somewhat integrated into employees’ work flow. Platforms like Google Hangouts, Skype, GoToMeeting, and Slack have revolutionized the way we view real-time communication at work, but do they have a measurable impact on productivity? Are they really a one-way ticket to agility, or are they just a necessary risk?

The pros of social tools

Gautum Roy, vice president of IT at Waste Management, based in Texas, told CIO he has been able to “embrace the best-performing attributes of consumer social networks by bringing those characteristics inside the company, to increase productivity, efficiency and improve business processes.” Their IT team saves time and money during time-crunches, such as critical outages, by communicating internally using Twitter. Their customer-facing staff have also successfully improved the customer experience with collaboration tools.

Large-scale studies, like the one by McKinsey, indicate that most industry tech leaders believe social collaboration tools have the potential to improve communications and make work more fluid. Among them, 66 percent believe that chat and internal social networks can break down communication barriers across functions and roles, and while 48 percent anticipate an increase in project-based work, 40 percent are confident that there will be more self-organization. For the majority of tech leaders, social tools are viewed as a way to achieve agility and productivity.

Social tools can have surprising benefits on employee happiness too. One Deloitte study found the right digital collaboration tools resulted in a 17 percent higher satisfaction rate within workplace culture. When you consider that engagement is worth 19 percent of the operating income: Employee happiness and engagement can be directly tied to engagement, retention, and even profitability. However, this same research found that only 9 percent of employees believed their employers’ tools were highly effective, and that the best solutions support transparency and trust.

… and the cons

Despite all the success stories, there are organizations who’ve quickly abandoned a new chat software post-implementation. Can these platforms lead to over-socialization, or more specifically, a fast drop in productivity? Health technology leader Christopher Batts expressed frustration with popular chat solutions, believing they increased his exposure to irrelevant comments while forcing him to still repeat all the email stuff he “did in the olden days anyway.”

Batts is likely not the first—or last—user to believe that chat tools have the potential to increase distractions. However, designer Ben Brown suggested that frustration with chat tools in the workplace can be connected to user expectations. Brown tells Fast Company, “[Chat] is a secondary and additive communication tool, and doesn’t replace process, documentation, and other tools like the wiki or company intranet.”

In other words, IT leaders should take caution before implementing any solution, be it chat or an internal social network. Trying to force a chat-shaped peg into an internal wiki-shaped hole can lead to fatigued employees and disappointing project results. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of any product ahead of time is key.

Frank Sielaff, head of digital media at Merck, a pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey, recently found himself on a tight deadline to launch an internal collaboration platform during a period of company rebranding. However, he was aware of the risks of unchecked “group” creation powers, and the risk that their platform would “soon have a couple of thousand groups, many of which are never used … lead[ing] to duplication and groups becoming orphaned when the person who set them up loses interest or leaves the company.”

Sielaff opted for “governance first,” stating that the goal wasn’t to create a “straight jacket” effect around employee approval. With clear criteria and a simple approval process, this project was able to proactively avoid messy results.

Productivity dream or nightmare?

When you dive into success stories of social collaboration implementations, you’ll start to notice that tech leaders talk frequently about governance and custom experiences. Organizations that drive results with collaboration tools typically have strategic implementation in common. CIO Angela Yochem of BDP International, a global logistics and transportation solutions provider based in Philadelphia, emphasized deliberate planning in her advice to other organizations. “Providing access to such a platform is not enough,” she told CIO. “Companies must be willing to seed conversations of interest, and let the conversations go where they may.”

Social tools are neither a silver bullet nor a nightmare. Like any other category of technology, they defy simple classification as either “all good” or “all bad.” Your organization’s experience and success will largely depend on your expectations and approach to implementation.