5 Lessons From a Seasoned Agilist

A few weeks ago I participated in the Start&Scale Week, promoted by the ScaleUp Porto organization. Besides events to promote entrepreneurship and other activities related to the startup ecosystem of the city of Porto, the Start&Scale Week also entails a series of Masterclasses on a variety of topics.

One of these Masterclasses, entitled “How we acquired Agility in our industry”, was taught by Kiro Harada. Kiro is an Agile expert experienced with different methodologies and frameworks such as Lean, Kanban and Scrum. His Masterclass included an overview of how the industry shifted from traditional management (command & control) to a more Agile way of managing and a very interesting Q&A session.

Instead of simply asking the audience for questions, in the Q&A session, Kiro asked the attendants to write questions on post-it notes and paste them on a board. Participants would then draw little dots (representing votes) on the post-its with the questions they thought were the most interesting. Kiro then started answering the questions with most votes.

Although there was time for answering all of the questions (I think the audience was kind of shy), this system represents the heart of Agile, where we want to deliver the maximum amount of value to the customers, and in this scenario, the audience is the customer. If we didn’t have time to answer all of the questions, the top voted ones would have been answered, ensuring the satisfaction of the majority of the attendants.

Kiro’s answers really clicked. He gave very insightful feedback and always asked the audience if he had properly answered the question. The following are 5 lessons I learned from his Masterclass.

Make Your Workplace Safe

One of the earliest questions was something along the lines of “Our Engineers don’t really believe in Agile, how can we improve the adoption?”. Kiro’s answer to this question really surprised me, it was “Is your workplace safe?”. I find this answer fascinating since Kiro is probably anticipating the possibility of the company adopting Agile without the buy-in of the employees.

People naturally resist change. We create habits and we like repetition because it feels familiar, brings comfort and it’s easier than constantly having to respond to stimulus. In this case, the engineers may or may not dislike Agile but if it is being forced upon them and their workplace isn’t safe, resistance will be even higher.

Great leaders/managers make their people feel safe. And when you are in an environment where you feel safe to give feedback without fearing for backlash then you set yourself up for success. Team’s that feel safe usually evolve and learn to perform better.

Check out this great talk of Simon Sinek on why good leaders make you feel safe:

Empower the Edge of Your Organization

We live in an era where we are constantly bombarded with information. The typical managerial style of command & control doesn’t perform very well in this scenario because of the intrinsic bottlenecks it creates. If you’re managing a team and you need to approve many of the decisions of your direct reports then you are going to spend a lifetime in meetings and not accomplishing much of your own (which can be something you’re willing to sacrifice).

Kiro suggests that if you intend to improve the value output of your team then you need to empower its people. You need to empower the people who are collecting the information to be able to act upon it with your guidance. Not only does this save time on both ends since you’re cutting meeting time and the time required for the information to disseminate within the team, you’re also ensuring that people are moving quicker since they can act as soon as they receive new information.

This main requisite for this kind of management style where you’re mostly guiding people instead of giving orders is trust, which is one of the Agile manifesto’s twelve principles.

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” - Agile Manifesto

Improve Commitment Through Transparency

One very interesting question was “How do I improve the commitment of my team? Sometimes it feels that they simply do the minimum to get by.”. This question was from someone who clearly had a leadership role in the company but was failing to channel his drive and motivation to his employees.

Kiro’s advice was to “make your work visible and tell people about it”. Unless the employees have stock options or big responsibilities, they usually aren’t invested as much as their leadership counterparts, therefore won’t be as committed. This is aggravated if the leader’s work isn’t clear, something done behind closed doors, invisible to the employees. If they don’t share the dream or the vision, they won’t be either committed nor motivated by the project and this will be reflected in the value of their outputs.

So, if you’re a leader and you are not making your work visible and communicating it to your employees then do it. There’s a reason the OKR (Objectives & Key Results) method is so successful, it trickles down through the organization, so the employees will always know what their leaders are doing and how they fit within the company’s goals.

Don’t Attempt Blindly Scale Agile

Another questions was “How do we make sure that the company as a whole is Agile?”. In this scenario, Kiro advised against enforcing some kind of “Agile standards” throughout the company. His argument was that Agile doesn’t work the same for every team. Since Agile cares more about individuals, different teams may implement Agile methodologies differently from other teams within the organization.

Teams will be able to work together even when working in distinct ways, but if you’re trying to apply the same recipe to every team, then you’re just back at square one. Your marketing and development teams can be Agile, but what works for one might not work as well for the other. Don’t scale without considering the implications.

Focus on the Desired Outcome, Not the Desired Process

One of my questions was “Why do many teams fail to adopt Scrum?”. Kiro’s answer to this questions was very interesting. He said “Because you’re trying to adopt Scrum.”. His point was that teams should focus on delivering, first and foremost, value. If your team is delivering value to the company then it doesn’t matter what process they follow as long as the outcome is right.

So the conclusion here is, focus on achieving desirable outcomes instead of focusing on the process towards getting them. Provide value first, optimize later.

This Masterclass was really eye-opening in different ways and I really enjoyed attending. I hope that these learned lessons also present some value to you. Many thanks to Kiro and to the ScaleUp Porto organization.

Discuss on Twitter 💬